Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
remembrance of things past
by Douglas Messerli
Weerasethakul (writer and director), Uncle
Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung
Bunmi Raluek Chat) / 2010
It’s always difficult to characterize a film by
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, because each film is so original and
clearly stands outside of the Western film-making traditions, while still
embracing certain of its tropes.
Weerasethakul creates extraordinarily quiet films, in which characters
sit for long periods of time without speaking, or wherein the director presents
long scenes, often filmed in nighttime, jungle locations in which the viewer
can barely see the images of animals or ghosts, let alone comprehend their
significance. Uncle Boonmee Who Can
Recall His Past Lives bears close relationships with Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, filmed in Northeastern
Thailand, the Isan region, bordering Laos.
This film, in fact, was part of a series of art
installations, documentaries, and films in 2009 devoted to that region of
Thailand which suffered the violent 1965 Thai army crackdown on Communist
sympathizers, which killed thousands. Like Tropical
Malady where we witness the capture and destruction of a tiger-man, in the
new film the director links this region to strange ghost and human-like animals
that were also destroyed in the army’s “rehabilitation” of the region.
Although the political ramifications of that period create a sub-theme
of Uncle Boonmee, the film is
primarily is a long series of meditations on larger issues, including love and
loss, the past and the present, actions and their moral ramifications, and,
most notably, issues of life and death.
Boonmee, suffering from kidney failure, is dying in his country farm,
whichraises bees for their honey and
tamarinds (useful also in the makeup of the bee’s honey). Sensing that he is
soon to die, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) invites his wife’s sister,Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) to come stay
with him, she, in turn, bringing along Thong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to help cook
for brother-in-law within his limited diet. Already gathered at the farm are
numerous immigrant workers, hired by Boonmee, including his Laos-born head
worker Jai (Samud Kugasang) who helps with Boonmee’s constant dialysis needs.
If this is an odd gathering, the outspoken and somewhat bigoted Jen (the Laos
are smelly, she proclaims) and open-minded and loving Jai, the dying Boonmee
and the equally faithful and loving Thong, it soon is joined by an even odder
couple, the ghost of Boonmee’s long-dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), as
beautiful and young as upon the day she died, and Boonmee’s long-missing son,
Boonson (Geerasak Kulhong), who, having become infatuated with a monkey ghost,
has himself become one of the furry, red-eyed creatures.
latter two suddenly show up at a family dinner, and are greeted by all with,
after a bit of wonderment, open, with amazing acceptance, leading to a slightly
surreal discussion of what their lives are now like, and how they have come to
be there. It is Boonmee, of course, in his death throes that has drawn them,
and according to Bongsong, dozens of other spirits and monsters. But their
appearance, although based on Thai science-fiction figures Weersethakul
encountered as a child, frighten less than they produce a sense of awe, as we
realize that in this place and in the director’s universe the dead and alive,
the past and the present, and animal and human are all interlinked. A later
story about a plain-looking princess who sees herself into the waters as
a beautiful young woman, a vision created, apparently, by a loving catfish,
ends with her giving up her jewels and dresses for intercourse with the randy
fish in order that she might turn into the vision itself, the woman with white
skin. Other visions include Boonmee’s who comprehension that he, in another
life, was born in a cave and that his present death relates to the karma caused
by his collaboration with the Thai army which not only killed communists and
all the “outsider” beings that existed in this isolated territory.
Weerasethakul work, all things interrelate, even if we cannot comprehend the
links he suggests. And this work is also about the transformations of art—the
visions we have of reality—particularly film, as the director explores various
cinematic styles, documentary mixed with epic fantasy, old-style, almost
silent-fiction-like acting with realist psychological scenes. Weerasethakul’s own
trademark experimentalism consisting of what he, himself, describes as "my
kind of film when you see long takes of animals and people driving,” alternates
with scenes reminding one of Thai comic books and older Thai television shows.
If this sounds “arty,” well, as far as I’m concerned, given the artless film
presentations of American cinema, good for it! Weerasethakul’s films demand
attention, but in their dark and daring beauty enchant the viewer in the
process. There are never easy answers in this director’s works, but the
questions they pose make his works matter in a way that few contemporary films achieve.
Boonmee’s strange death is followed up by a Buddhist ceremony and an
aftermath in which Jen and her daughter sit in a hotel room counting up the
contributions of money sent in memory of Boonmee. Into this cold and inhospitable room where Jen and
her daughter appear somewhat mercenary, enters a Buddhist monk, clearly unhappy
in his future role in life and unable to sleep in the isolated and desolate
temple in which he lives. In a strange transaction that reminds one a bit of
Carey Grant entering a lover’s room, the monk asking if he might take a shower
in their bathroom (Grant takes showers in women’s rooms in both North by Northwest and Charade). Changing his clothes to that
of a modern Thai boy, the monk invites Jen to dinner, to which she (at least
one aspect of her) agrees, we observing her at a nearby restaurant where the
two begin to talk. Another part of her stays, while her daughter falls to
sleep, the monk and her sitting at the end of the bed enwrapped in a television
show. Either way, it is clearly, for the lonely Jen and dissatisfied young
monk, the beginning of something new, suggesting a potential to start over
again. One can only wonder, of course, if this is Uncle Boonmee come back to
begin yet a new life.