A beguiling fable about transition and transformation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) reconfirms Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul as one of the medium’s most mesmeric visionaries. Set in the humid, gauzy northern Thailand jungles, where fifty years earlier the indigent citizens were enlisted to stamp out communist forces, and where the real and unreal, present and past, comingle in fantastically fundamental ways, Weerasethakul’s follow-up to Syndromes and a Century revolves around Uncle Boonmee (Thnapat Saisaymar), a bee farmer who’s dying of an illness that requires his kidney to be regularly drained by a nurse. While visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), Boonmee’s tropical malady summons two spirits: the ghost of his dead son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who after mating with a glowing-red-eyed Ghost Monkey is now himself a furry manimal; and his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who explains that spirits don’t go to a heaven (which is “overrated”) but, instead, remain tethered to the living people they loved.
The former visitor’s condition speaks to Uncle Boonmee’s fascination with man’s intrinsic relationship to animals and nature, a bond also epitomized by a stunning sequence in which an aging princess – spurred by a young servant boy and desperate to recapture the beautiful young visage she spies in a waterfall pond reflection – gets it on with a catfish. In that sequence, as well as in Boonmee recounting his traumatic dream about “disappearing” after killing communists, the film laces its patient musings with politicized notions of guilt and silence, which also (as in the climactic sight of a monk shunning his religious robes) seem to speak to Weerasethakul’s own difficulties with his homeland’s conservative censors. Meanwhile, via Boonmee’s encounters with his wife – and, especially, in a heartbreakingly tender image of need, longing and sadness that finds the ailing man sitting up in his sick bed to embrace, and be embraced by, Huay – Weerasethakul’s film expresses the pervasive role that the past plays on both the present and the future, with the director eventually blending physical and temporal spaces during a third-act that includes appearances by characters from his prior effort.
From human to beast, old to young, and living to dead, Weerasethakul’s characters are in constant evolution, with ideas about reincarnation and safe-passage (across the Laos-Thai border, or the earthly and ethereal realm) captured through a variety of different modes that pay homage to – and thus resuscitate – disappearing Thai cinematic genres. To be sure, this is familiar terrain for the auteur, and there’s an occasional sense that the story is working out issues that were already thoroughly considered by the filmmaker’s last two masterworks. Nonetheless, his relaxed yet imposing directorial style remain breathtaking, his long, languorous, searching cinematography and enveloping sound design (a combination of natural soundscapes and ominous, otherworldly drones and shrieks) melding to create an entrancing fairy-tale mood that suggests fundamental links between – and the concurrent presence of – various states of mind and being. Like Boonmee’s eventual navigation of a nocturnal path into a subterranean cave (the stalactite roof’s mineral deposits shining like stars) and the inescapable darkness, it’s a film to descend into, an aesthetically ravishing, stunningly tender meditation on our place in this world, the next, and the many areas in-between.
2010 New York Film Festival