One of my favorite movie-going experiences in the last several years was a 2007 LA Film Festival screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. I’d never seen a Weerasethakul picture before, I had no real idea what to expect and I don’t even remember what compelled me to buy a ticket, but it was one of those strange, transcendent movie-going experiences that don’t happen along very often. I didn’t quite now how to describe it then and I don’t know how to describe it now. The movie just is and it gets under your skin or it doesn’t. His latest, the Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is much the same (it even has a Buddhist monk), though for me it didn’t quite approach the same level of inscrutable magic.
The story, such as it is, revolves around a farmer who is dying of kidney failure. As his friends and family gather to care for him, the lines between past and present, real and unreal begin to blur. The ghosts of his dead wife and missing son appear – the latter in the form of a monkey ghost with glowing red eyes. It’s as if, opening the door to death, Boonmee’s illness has temporarily connected life and afterlife and the inhabitants of both worlds are free to cross back and forth.
Among these inhabitants are apparently some of Boonmee’s previous incarnations including a cow and either a princess or a catfish. Weerasethakul never offers an explanation for the sometimes bizarre tangents his narrative takes as Boonmee’s literal journey through the forest ultimately leads to his figurative end in a cave. The inexplicitness of it all and Weerasethakul’s unassertive filmmaking (the camera is content to quietly watch whatever happens to be unfolding on screen or even occasionally drift off from the main action to gaze at something else) add to the sense of mystery. There’s a kind of through-line, a fragment of logic that pulls you through the almost fairytale narrative, but it’s elusive – or possibly illusive and when you look back after it’s all over you wonder if it was ever really there at all.
Such is the magic of Weerasethakul. With his digressions, matter of fact acceptance of the bizarre or supernatural, peaceful embrace of nature (the sounds of bugs and birds and various forest creatures fill the soundtrack for much of the film), curveball bursts of gentle deadpan humor and disregard for the strictures of a concrete narrative, he sets the stage for a kind of meditative state if you’re willing. Patience is the key as Uncle Boonmee certainly take its time on a journey where the endpoint is never clear and ultimately leaves more questions than answers. Some will find it narcotizingly slow, but those who are engaged will find it placidly hypnotic. It’s as if Weerasethakul is trying to break down the resistance of his audience and open the door between two worlds in the same way he has for his characters. It’s becomes a rumination on the continuum of life and death at a point where both are the same.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand / Spain / Germany / UK / France 2010) (US Release 2011) Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cinematography by Yukontorn Mingmongkon, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and Charin Pengpanich. Edited by Lee Chatametikool. Starring Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbaudee, Nattakarn Aphaiwonk and Geerasak Kulhong. 1 hour 53 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Charin Pengpanich, Geerasak Kulhong, Jenjira Pongpas, Lee Chatametikool, Nattakarn Aphaiwonk, Sakda Kaewbaudee, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Thanapat Saisaymar, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Yukontorn Mingmongkon