The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
He Lives by Night
Jeff Reichert on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
There are few experiences to be had in contemporary cinema as becalming as a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This may sound like a contradiction given how willfully the Thai artist’s six features and handful of shorter works bend form like putty and freely discard narrative conventions—aesthetic maneuvers that may instill in some a measure of viewing discomfort. Yet his body of work, among the most enriching to the art form over the past two decades, is proof positive that a filmmaker need not be confrontational to provoke, need not be aggressive to upend the status quo. His cinema shows us that a continual assault on audience expectation can come wrapped in warm, pleasurable reverie and brush by like a caress. These are films in which a lengthy sun-dappled close-up of a penis receiving a hand job (Blissfully Yours), a man shape-shifting into a tiger (Tropical Malady), or the reprise of an entire narrative arc within the bounds of the same film featuring largely the same actors (Syndromes and a Century) seem simply matters of course. With a filmmaker as prodigiously gifted and deeply strange as Apichatpong, you enter a world that seems both small and limitless, mundane and unreal, earthly and galactic. Thus far, his Palme d’Or–awarded Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the apogee of his output.
Uncle Boonmee begins at night on an image of a bull tied to a tree in silhouette as sunlight fades. A subsequent shot reveals that there is a group of men camped nearby, cooking dinner. Without exerting much effort to do so, the bull frees itself from its tether and, over the course of a few more shots, wanders through cultivated land until it stops to rest in the jungle. Shortly after, one of the men comes to retrieve the animal and pull him back to civilization. We then see that watching this interaction play out is an upright ape with glowing red eyes, standing stock still amidst the trees—a now iconic figure of Apichatpong’s cinema. This sequence is captured largely in wide compositions, but it says something about Apichatpong as a filmmaker that the only two close-ups in the sequence are offered to the bull. And, six minutes into the movie, where is the Uncle Boonmee of the title? I have a hunch we’ve met him, though at this point in his existence, he might have four legs.
After the film’s title card, we meet two of the film’s protagonists, both played by Apichatpong regulars: Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). They are headed by car to visit sick Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is fading from a serious kidney ailment. He lives alone on a farm with his nurse, who has immigrated, perhaps illegally, from nearby Laos. He also employs a few workmen who help him tend to his bees and harvest his tamarind crop. Later, as Jen and Boonmee tour the grounds, Boonmee notes the prominence of pests on his land, pointing out a wormhole in one fruit. “The white one,” Jen replies, the filmmaker perhaps folding jokes about sci-fi time travel and Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm into his bucolic reverie, much in the way his epochal move into the black maw of a ventilation shaft in Syndromes nodded at 2001. There’s an unhurried, mundane quality to life on the farm—people walk and sit, and talk a bit, walk some more. At one point, Boonmee lies down to have his kidney flushed. It’s all so very grounded.
Yet seemingly solid ground always proves to be less firm in the films of Apichatpong and the world of Uncle Boonmee especially. Across his work, life and death touch each other, and as viewers we are brought to new understanding about how subtle the distinctions between one and the other state might be. In the lengthy set piece that dominates the film’s first act, Tong, Jen, and Boonmee dine together on the porch at night. After some genial chitchat amongst the three, the farmer’s long-dead wife (Jen’s older sister) materializes at the table out of thin air. There is some initial surprise at her apparition, but this doesn’t last long. The same goes for the arrival of the furry, man-shaped creature with glowing red eyes who ascends the stairs. No monster, this is Boonmee’s missing son, Boonsong, who has in the course of his travels adopted this new, hirsute form. With the family reunited, they set about catching up with one another about where their various paths, corporeal or not or sort of, human or not or sort of, have taken them. There is no privilege accorded to one state of being over another. All of these figures exist within the same frame of Apichatpong’s cinema. And, importantly, to his characters, all are equals. Of course this all could just happen.
What brings this group together, even if it is not openly discussed at this nocturnal summit, is Boonmee’s impending death, which the very ether of this film seems to be aware of. Illnesses and maladies abound in Apichatpong’s films: Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, Cemetery of Splendor. Eros itself may well be sick, but in this cinema we might all be too. In the film’s later stages (the movie feels, appropriately, like a progression, a passage), as Boonmee lays dying on the floor of the cave, fluid draining from the tube inserted through his belly into his kidney, he muses on the darkness of his surroundings, wondering if his eyes are open or closed. Then he remembers: “This cave is like a womb… I only know that I was born here. I don’t know if I was a human or an animal, a woman or a man.” The film then cuts from the cave to a series of ten still images. The first is a man in camouflage leading an apelike form by a rope around its neck. Later images feature more young people in military garb and carrying weapons, another a group of youths in street clothes horsing around, and an odd posed portrait in which the monkey man casually drapes his arms around two smiling soldiers. During this section of the film, Boonmee recounts his dream of the previous night, which took him via time machine to a future city. It’s worth recounting a bit of this as here lies something like a manifesto for Apichatpong’s cinema. (Or perhaps a user’s guide.)
In the future city of Boonmee’s dream, an all-powerful authority has gained access to a new weapon of control: “When they found ‘past people,’ they shone a light on them. That light projected images of them onto a screen.” After this projection they disappeared. Boonmee’s meditation sounds not unlike the time-warping powers of cinema, which always brings past people, or past moments in the lives of present people, crashing into some onrushing future. Provoked by the candid, sunlit imagery contained in the photographs, the audience is invited to consider them in any number of ways: whose images are these—Apichatpong’s? Are these some of the unseen photos Boonsong developed in his darkroom before turning into an ape? Do they somehow represent Boonmee’s dream? And if so, how? Could they be scenes from a test shoot for the film we are now watching? As the film was made in the wake of political unrest in Thailand in the latter part of the last decade, there’s a whiff of political rejoinder, but in an elliptical fashion that only Apichatpong could construct. There are so many possible readings that might fit this small section of the film, yet all seem like they could be correct.
Apichatpong seems by now an artist able to respond to any and everything around him through a unique prism. In the bounds of Uncle Boonmee, we find refractions of politics, meditations on the materiality and powers of his primary medium (moving images), a passing from life into death and a grand unified theory for how all of the categories in play in this rich film are so enmeshed as to practically be inseparable. Woven through Uncle Boonmee we can find traces of the animist-leaning Zen Buddhism of the region of Thailand where Apichatpong grew up (like Nam Jun Paik, he seems able to employ the tenets of Buddhist thought at will in his work, without making works that might be solely categorized as such) rubbing shoulders with influences picked up while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago—Marker, Warhol.
Uncle Boonmee is certainly Apichatpong’s wildest film to date, the one in which he seems emboldened to try pretty much anything he can imagine. Witness one of the film’s most discussed digressions, a fairy tale in which a princess has rough sex in a jungle pool with a catfish. At about two thirds of the way through Uncle Boonmee, the film cuts abruptly from a shot of Tong, prone and swinging in a hammock as the sun sets over the farm to a palanquin being carried by several men through the jungle at night (nearly everything in this film seems to happen in darkness). Inside is a richly adorned princess, her face hidden by a veil. The camera adopts the princess’ POV, and for some time we remain fixed on the back of the head of one of the men transporting her. He turns to look at her and in the reverse shot, she looks down, only to glance back and meet his gaze. In the next shot, which reassumes an omniscient POV, she reaches out and strokes his head, his bare shoulder.
The group arrives at a quiet pond near a small waterfall and the princess, who bears some facial deformity, stares at her reflection in the waters—her image shimmers and changes to one that’s more lithe and beautiful. Her servant approaches her sexually, aggressively, but she shuns his advances, accusing him of falling in love with the apparition, not her reality: “You imagined kissing the woman in the reflection, right?” The spurned man leaves the princess alone to her tears and loneliness until a passing catfish begins to woo her. As with the film’s earlier dinner scene, this cross-species flirtation plays out without either party actively questioning the unlikeliness of the interaction. (The princess asks at one point if the voice she hears comes from a ghost, but her suitor deadpans: “I’m not a ghost, I’m a catfish.”) It is similarly unsurprising when the princess enters the water, removes her jewelry and clothing and lies back to the let the catfish ravish her. It’s a surprisingly sexy sequence for a fable of bestiality. All of a sudden it ends, and the film never mentions it again. Might this have been one of Boonmee’s past lives?
Though we’ve perhaps all existed in multiple forms and across many different times, death ends each of our iterations. After a quick dip into Boonmee’s funeral, the film radically fractures yet again. Jen, Tong, and a young woman sit next to each other on a bed in a brightly lit hotel room, watching soldiers marching on television. The angle changes and we now see only Tong, standing in the corner readying to leave as Jen, still on the bed, pushes herself into the frame. As Tong turns toward the door he stops, aghast. In a wide shot, we see what he sees: another version of himself still sitting on the bed next to an unmoved Jen and the young woman. There’s a second Jen that notices this doubling too, but her reaction is well in keeping with the ethos of the film: “Tong, let’s go eat.” At the end of Boonmee, are Jen and Tong still sitting in the hotel, transfixed at the sight of soldiers marching on their TV screen? The final shot before black would seem to suggest so. But there’s another possibility, one witnessed in the next shots after Jen exhorts Tong to grab a bite: perhaps the two are sitting across from each other in a garish karaoke bar listening to Thai one-man band Penguin Villa’s “Acrophobia” (perhaps the most fist-pumping final music cue in this decade of art cinema). Why choose one of these possibilities over another? Why can’t it be both? Perhaps if the film hadn’t cut abruptly to black, we’d be treated to even more options.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was created as a part of Apichatpong’s multi-part and cross-media art installation Primitive, which examined the Isan region of northeast Thailand, near Laos, where Apichatpong grew up. So, even though the film is as complete as any work of art in the past decade, it’s also provisional, existing in another galaxy of possibilities and experiences, a collection of pieces made possible by emergent technologies (digital video) mixed with those that are dying (i.e. shooting on film). I’ve read also that Apichatpong based the film around a strict conceptual plan: “I divided the film into reels, six cans for the film, and each can is a different representation, a different style, a different setting, different lighting, acting style. If you notice, if you catch...for example, for reel two, the dinner, the film has changed styles, it becomes like an old film, the lighting is from television of the past, very stiff and conventional.” Uncle Boonmee, for all its disparate pieces, feels like the most coherent of films. This is either a sign that Apichatpong failed in his stated mission, or succeeded on yet another plane entirely.
At the conclusion of Uncle Boonmee, it’s worth recalling the film’s opening inscription: “Facing the jungle, the hills, and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.” Years ago, perhaps in another life, writing about Syndromes and a Century for these pages, I boldly pegged Apichatpong as a filmmaker unlikely to make some kind of well-budgeted international co-production featuring a star like Tilda Swinton. The joke is on me—or that past iteration of me, at least. The filmmaker’s latest film is said to indeed star Tilda herself and will be released by Neon. In the intervening years since Syndromes, Apichatpong has delivered on the promise of his early films and then some, first with this world-beater of a movie and then the quietly leveling Cemetery of Splendor. Uncle Boonmee never coalesces into one meaning—rather it expands until myriad meanings vibrate across the screen. People go to the movies for a variety of reasons, but those who enter darkened theaters looking for evidence that magic still exists in this world need look no further. Watch closely these enchanted texts, and especially Uncle Boonmee. And take care to study the dark spaces. There’s always something else, something fascinating and strange and wholly unexpected lurking in the night waiting to be seen.