By Don Simpson | March 2, 2011
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writer(s): Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Matthieu Ly, Samud Kugasang, Jenjira Pongpas
We spend the first five or so minutes of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives basking in the unadulterated sounds of nature as we follow the travails of an escaped Ox, only to cut to a mysterious monkey ghost with glowing red eyes. The opening sequence seems so purposeful, yet I have not been able to unlock the code. My only guess is that the ox refers to one of the past lives noted within the film’s title. The monkey ghost comes into play later, but its role at this juncture of the film is a little perplexing…
For the most part, that seems to be the goal of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes Palm d’Or winning film—to be a little perplexing. For those without a firm grasp on Buddhism and even those of us who think we know a thing or two about Buddha, Uncle Boonmee might be more than a little bit perplexing. The pacing is so slow at times that the frames of film seem to stop moving; other times there are jump cuts to scenes that appear to be completely unrelated to, well, anything whatsoever. Uncle Boonmee is a very patient film (it only moves when absolutely necessary) that requires a lot of patience on behalf of the viewer. The good news is that the most contented viewers will be rewarded highly with a transcendentally cinematic experience. Screw meditation — just dive headfirst into the cosmic pool of Uncle Boonmee!
The titular Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a soft-spoken tamarind and honey farmer to whom karma has dealt a bum kidney. Boonmee’s nurse and housekeeper is Jaai (Samud Kugasang), an illegal immigrant from Laos who crossed the Mekong River into Thailand; Boonmee’s sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) does not seem too keen on having a filthy Lao hanging around the farm, but Boonmee assures Jen (in not so many words) that her ethnic biases are unfounded and Jaai is a very good person. Jen and her nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), have come from (to quote Boonmee, the anti-cosmopolitan) “the city from hell” to stay with Boonmee in the Thai countryside where, according to Boonmee, you can travel anywhere (for free!) via meditation at the local temple.
During dinner one evening together we meet Boonmee’s deceased wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk); she literally fades into the scene, and yes, Huay is a ghost and the corporal beings barely bat an eyelash at her appearance. It is even more suprising when a Wookie-like monkey ghost (like the one we met at the five minute mark) arrives at their dinner table; he is Boonmee’s estranged son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). What does Jen ask Boonsong? “Why did you grow your hair so long?” Yes, that is precisely the very first question that I would ask a monkey ghost sitting at my dinner table. Well, okay, eventually they do get to the story about how Boonsong became a red-eyed monkey ghost, but the point I am trying to make is that the living, the dead, and the furry converse as if nothing unusual is happening; bizarrely, supernatural beings are treated equally to the most banally natural. (Weerasethakul does opt to comment on the situation, however, via the film’s soundtrack. It is an unassuming change at first, but Boonsong’s appearance ushers in a pulsing electronic score which quickly garners a menacing and otherworldly air.)
We spend a lot of quality time with Boonmee, but as his death creeps closer, the film unravels into a free-flowing surrealist dreamlike structure; the lines become blurred (if not completely erased) between past and present, dream and reality, life and death. Before we know it, there is an ugly princess with a talking catfish between her thighs. (Uh, yeah, about that…well, I’ve got nothing.)
Huay takes Boonmee and company on a hike deep into the forest. They descend into a sparkling cave, which is where Boonmee truly accepts his fate, but before he takes his final breath, Boonmee dreams a surreal slide show of photographs of “past people” being tortured in a violent and militaristic future (Weerasethakul’s sly way of addressing Thailand’s oppressive present). When Weerasethakul does finally allow Boonmee to die, fluid drains from his body, promptly returning to the earth.
With Boonmee now dead, we are ushered away from the lush and tranquil countryside to an ugly hotel and a gaudy funeral hall. The sharp contrast of the bright electronic lights, whether it be the twinkling lights in the funeral hall or the harsh glow of the television screen, is quite literally a sight for sore eyes. We find ourselves in an unnatural and garish environment, and it does not take a film critic to notice that Weerasethakul clearly prefers the countryside.
Uncle Boonmee reflects a world where memories of the dead, and the dead themselves, are always around (because heaven is over-rated); ghosts can hear prayers and feel gifts that are left at the temple for them. Most importantly, this is a place of reincarnation where karma can make people stubborn and cause illnesses. Weerasethakul focuses intensely on the karmic value of making peace with one’s past. Boonmee’s life is overburdened by guilt and regret, but we only learn about some of the past deeds for which Boonmee feels guilty or regretful (for example: his participation in the Thai government’s bloody suppression of Communism).
Weerasethakul’s unique brand of cinematic surrealism utilizes Georges Méliès’ classic approach of creating simple visual illusions with celluloid. The fantastic elements of Uncle Boonmee are incredibly subtle, blending in seamlessly with the mise-en-scène. The wide (often static) shots and long takes allow the viewer to digest the images at their own pace with plenty of opportunities to notice even the slightest nuances. It is often difficult, especially when gazing into a dark, dense forest, to determine where Weerasethakul would like the audience to focus, but that is the point; he is not interested in providing any instructions to the viewer. Weerasethakul is solely interested in creating mysterious, dreamlike, and magical environments for the viewer to immerse themselves in. If meditation allows us to travel anywhere, Weerasethakul wants us to travel deep into the fantastical world of Uncle Boonmee.