by Michael Koresky
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, Strand Releasing
What should be mentioned first is the quiet. But when discussing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives many will undoubtedly initially gravitate towards the monkey ghosts, the talking catfish, the materializing spirits. Yet it’s the hushed beauty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that perhaps most unites them, and which helps make his latest—the surprise Palme d’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—what it is, atmospherically, temperamentally, spiritually. The natural wonder of Apichatpong’s Northern Thailand, the swaying branches and grasses of its restive jungles and fields, its crickets and birds, breezes and hums, are all-encompassing on screen, thanks to the filmmaker’s immersive, simple yet forceful sound design, itself a gentle Buddhist gesture. Watching and listening, we are united with every living thing on screen, and we become aware of our place in the cosmos.
What should be mentioned second is the karaoke song. Yes, though the solitude of Apichatpong’s worlds are rarely disturbed by a musical soundtrack of any kind, Uncle Boonmee, like the beguiling Syndromes and a Century before it, ends with an incongruously upbeat pop tune, this one called “Acrophobia.” Occasional disjunctions such as that are among the chief pleasures of the Thai artist’s features, that stream-of-consciousness quality so definitively announced in his first feature, the exquisite corpse–style Mysterious Object at Noon. For a filmmaker with such an identifiable and unified aesthetic approach, Apichatpong seems most tickled by the odd detour. It’s what separates him from most of today’s acclaimed art-house formalists: he offers long takes, but not exclusively or even meticulously. His pace is unhurried but he’ll stop a scene if necessary; his cutting is intuitive and impulsive, rather than overdetermined, resulting in a cinema that more effectively mirrors a dream state than that of any filmmaker outside of David Lynch. His tone is solemn yet he’s not above deflating the mood with a smile, so good-natured is he. He’s political yet focused on the smallest gestures between people—or between humans and animals. The silence and the silly song, together—two chambers of the same open heart.
There’s such unforced beauty in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that for those familiar with his work, Uncle Boonmee’s opening won’t come as a revelation but a signature movement; for those unaccustomed, it’ll be remarkably splendid. A silhouette of an ox, barely outlined against a night sky, tethered to a tree in a field beneath the stars, incense smoke rising from the living ground at its feet. Celestial nighttime is to Apichatpong what magic hour is to Malick—the beauty of the natural world just visible in the bluish darkness (think of Tropical Malady’s erotic midnight hunting, the jungle folding in on its lovers like a closing palm). Soon the ox releases itself and gallops off, only to be recaptured, its spirit lassoed once again. But creeping in the darkness nearby is another creature, walking upright, with glowing red eyes like laser pointers.
That this mammalian figure, wookiee-like but oddly resplendent under the director’s slightly canopied illumination, will not only figure into the film’s family narrative but also be somehow a member of that family is one of Uncle Boonmee’s many pleasant surprises, and proof of the director’s visionary benevolence. This beast—an ethereal spirit made earthy and hairy—returns to the rural household of the titular Boonmee (graceful nonprofessional Thanapat Saisaymar, a roof welder) and his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). Boonmee’s nephew Tong (Apichatpong regular Sakda Kaewbuadee), an ordained monk, has arrived to be with him as he suffers the last stages of kidney failure; his sickness is attended to by Laotian immigrant Jaai, just another of many guardian aliens in Uncle Boonmee’s generous fantasy. When the hirsute phantom in question, the manifestation of Boonmee’s long-missing child, Boonsong, arrives, along with a ghostly apparition of Boonmee’s dead wife and Jen’s older sister, Huay, it barely registers as a shock—it’s more of an amusing fancy, so completely has the director convinced us of this world, where the living and the dead, the human and the animal, commingle. Boonsong knows his father is not well; as we’ll see, ghosts and animals sense his sickness and wish to provide comfort. Ultimately, this is little more than a family reunion: at one point Jen even breaks out the photo album.
The spirits’ shadowy arrival—Huay materializes like Banquo at their dinner table; Boonsong ascends the stairs to the porch as though rising from the grave—comes during a scene of infectious mundanity: Tong, Jen, and Boonmee discuss food, the comfortability of their beds, and the latter’s health. There will be a great many scenes like this—in between the fantastic sights, life goes on unadorned: Boonmee and Jen wander their environs, taste the local beekeepers’ honey (“as chewy as bubblegum”), talk to the Laotian migrant workers who tend to the farmland. Sometimes the conversation tends toward regret—at one point Boonmee supposes that his illness is karmic punishment. “I’ve killed too many Communists,” he grieves. Jen tries to assuage him by telling him it was out of duty for his country. Boonmee’s retort to this appeal to patriotism: “What a pain in the ass!”
This reference to Thailand’s decades-old military crackdown on recurring communist insurgency isn't the first instance of politics in Apichatpong’s work, but perhaps it’s the most direct. Following his internationally known run-in with his country’s post-coup government censors over the largely innocuous Syndromes and a Century (the offending content included doctors variously drinking alcohol and kissing, and Buddhist monks strumming guitars and playing with a remote control flying saucer), Apichatpong has proclaimed a more defiant angle to his work, and Uncle Boonmee is clearly engaged with the reality of the Isan province in the poorer rural northeast of Thailand, even as it places that reality in a folkloric framework. Uncle Boonmee, though captivating on its own terms, is just one part of the Primitive Project, which focuses on village life in Isan. Last year’s marvelous short, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, which played in avant-garde film festival programs, was another facet of this grand design, as are various international installations and online presentations. Apichatpong has spoken of his affection for this area (he grew up in Khon Kaen, which is in the northeast), and he finds inspiration in its simplicity and mythos, especially as a counterpoint to the increasing ideological warfare that has made the capitol such a volatile place in recent years.
Boonmee’s final days are spent far from such strife. With such lovely souls as Tong, Jen, Boonsong, Huay, and Jaai to guide him to his next life, Boonmee has time and space for contemplation, as do we viewers. Much of Uncle Boonmee is an idyll; watching it we’re swayed like a hammock in the breeze. There is even time for an unexpected bedtime story, the tale of a tragically scarred princess who sees a beautifully unblemished face reflected in a pool by a magical waterfall and who gives herself sexually to a lovelorn fish who breathes in that miraculous, watery looking glass. Is Boonmee a reincarnation of that sea creature? Or perhaps he was the princess? That we never know for sure is part of the film’s poetic miracle: the title might be misleading (we’re never told whether Uncle Boonmee can recall his past lives or not), but the possibility of soul transmigration seems to exist within every person and animal we meet, from that sprightly ox to the hairy Boonsong to the insects that bring this world to buzzing life—even those flies that Jen casually zaps with an electric swatter on her porch.
Just as man and creature intermingle in Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong allows his film itself to become something of a hybrid. Documentary slyly seeps into this fantastical fiction: a behind-the-scenes photo montage from the filming of other parts of the Primitive Project briefly takes over the screen (teenagers from local Nabua villages dressed up in military fatigues, posing with a man in a ridiculous gorilla suit) while a voice over intimates of recent Thai political reality, specifically “a regime that could make anybody disappear.” This startling sequence acts as a bridge between a death and a rebirth—it’s a non sequitur of sorts, but Apichatpong trusts that his viewers will go with it emotionally. It’s also a way of bringing us back to a kind of realism: the final ten minutes of the film, set in a sterile urban hospital, bring us to an unforeseen conclusion, or perhaps an anti-conclusion. We’re back in the concrete realm of e-mail, of cell phones, of credit cards, yet an out of body experience is not out of the question.
Apichatpong has said, “Cinema is man’s way to create an alternate universe,” and Uncle Boonmee culminates with a vision of what might be an alternate reality. Yet as startling (and as startlingly mundane) as the climactic images of the film are, it’s just one of many different realities, past and present, mythic and real, that Uncle Boonmee imagines. Apichatpong has fashioned a film that is something like an endlessly regenerating tribute—to his father (who like Boonmee died of kidney failure), to cinema, to Thailand’s Northern provinces, to the spirit world, to nature. And in this tenderhearted vision, these forces never come into conflict. They merge into one joyous, mournful entity—like the harmony created by that exquisite silence and that buoyant karaoke tune.