Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is a ghost film. It’s not a ghost film in the traditional sense – nothing ever is with Apichatpong – but it is a document about spaces teeming with the memories and specters of the past. Any physical space is always inextricably tied to its history. The people who inhabited it before, the things they left behind and the events experienced there, all leave a tangible trace, a trail connecting them all together. However, this trail is always growing, for these stored moments are not stale or frozen, they live. New people, objects, hopes, dreams, and disappoints also contribute to a place’s story, and these too are constantly being rewritten. For Apichatpong, the past is not really passed; these realities, histories and reincarnations overlap, and in their union form the spiritual identity of a place.
The film’s 4 minute introduction beautifully encapsulates these theme and so many more. We begin stationary, gazing at a window, but more focused on the frame than what’s visible outside it. The narration begins and the camera tracks backwards, slowly, through an empty house. Our eye is drawn to the various objects scattered throughout: a bed, stuffed animals, shirts, photos. These are real objects belonging to real people. How many people, we wonder, have slept in this bed? How many have worn this shirt? Meanwhile, the narrator reads a letter to his uncle explaining that he wants to make a film about the man’s many reincarnations, and his desire to find houses that might resemble his uncle’s in the town Nabua. Though the uncle is deceased, he’s still present. He’s always been in Nabua and always will be. After a brief, speculative pause, still in the same shot, the letter is read again, this time by another voice. Now another person will have the chance to invoke the spirits of this place and to imbue it with his own. It’s a new reading of history, but one that’s not ignorant of the others before it. It’s an addition, not a replacement. This time, the reader wonders what the view from his uncle’s window was. “Was it like this?”, he asks, as we gently track towards the open window and beyond.
“Soldiers once occupied this place. They killed and tortured the villagers until everyone fled into the jungle,” Apichatpong explains. They too are a part of Nabua’s story, a part of each villager’s story, and a part of the story of the houses they occupied. In the film, soldiers occupy the same places, relaxing, eating, digging, and their ghosts are alive as well. Moving through a new house (presumably in the present), its walls covered with modern posters and Hello Kitty balloons, we can still hear the digging (presumably in the past) on the soundtrack. The soldiers have not left. They inhabit this place still and, like Uncle Boonmee, always will. In the same shot, sharing the same space as the digging soldiers, we hear others chatting. They seem to be the filmmakers themselves, hashing out bits of the screenplay, worrying if the locations are right and if the local dialect is accurately represented. Apichatpong and his crew are now themselves part of the local history, existing in simultaneity with the soldiers and everyone else who’s ever been there, and who ever will be.
The future is also represented in the film, though its presence is much more nebulous. As we track through a house, listening to the soldiers of the past and the film crew of the present, we see a mysterious smoking Death-Star-like pod out in the grass. “A spaceship parked in the backyard,” Apichatpong says. This interpretation is corroborated by a child’s drawing of a very different-looking spaceship hanging on the wall of a house. The roof of one house begins to creak loudly. The camera is drawn up but the shot ends before anything is revealed. Perhaps this is another trace of the future of this place, a sign that these old houses, one day, will fall into disrepair, like a sad, dilapidated relic we see later. In another eerie sight, we catch a glimpse of a black creature stalking in the jungle outside. Could this also be some future inhabitant of Nabua?
A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is full of mystery, and, despite few glimpses of people, full of life. The film succeeds thanks to Apichatpong’s ability to imbue these empty spaces with so much life and memory. The long, steady tracking shots convey a sense of perpetual motion, of progression, but not at the expense of the past. His camera moves largely in circles, left to right, presenting a carousel of houses that seem to fade into one another. The effect would almost be dizzying, but the camera moves so slowly and elegantly to allow the viewer to register details before presenting a new sight. Another key aspect to the film (and to much of Apichatpong’s work) is the sound. Just as the visuals convey overlapping realities, so too does the soundtrack. The digging soldiers, chatting filmmakers, sputtering fan blades and rustling leaves allow us auditory traces of the ghosts living alongside us. Through the union of all these elements and separate stories, Apichatpong is able to invoke the entire spirit of Nabua and its past, present and future inhabitants, all in under 18 minutes.