Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, like all of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, is a strange and hypnotic experience, sure to captivate some viewers while alienated those expecting standard narrative storytelling. His films are better felt than understood, and while surrendering to their lyricism can be difficult for westerners weaned on the wares of Hollywood, it will prove rewarding to adventurous viewers.
Apichatpong’s films, and Uncle Boonmee particularly, come the closest to a cinematic equivalent of Magical Realist literature. Like Hayao Miyazaki, Apichatpong creates worlds that are recognizably our own, yet shared with ghosts, spirits and magic, lingering traces of the past that buzz all around us like jungle mosquitoes. In his newest film, winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a sick, elderly farmer surrounded by his family prepares for his death. One night at dinner, he is joined by the ghost of his dead wife and his long-lost son, returned from the jungle as an ape-man. These apparitions are matter-of-factly welcomed by Boonmee, who will soon become a spirit himself, and the characters’ acceptance of such strange beings speaks to the odd surreality of Apichatpong’s world.
Uncle Boonmee is the feature film component of Apichatpong’s multi-media project PRIMITIVE, which grapples with the complicated political history of northern Thailand and explores the regions shared memory. (The short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is also part of the project.) North Thailand – localized on Boonmee’s farm and the surrounding jungle – is an area with many ghosts and much darkness in its past. The political connections of the film are mostly abstract, but Boonmee does allude to his guilt over clashes between government forces and farmers accused of being Communists. His questionable treatment of Laotian immigrant workers further attests to the area’s cultural tensions.
Yet beyond exhuming political ghosts, Apichatpong, informed by Buddhist philosophy, is interested in depicting all of life contained in the film’s setting: plant, animal, insect, human and spirit. This goal of blending all forms of life may provide a clue to the film’s many unexplained narrative diversions. The restless water buffalo that opens the film, for example, might it be one of Boonmee’s past lives? And the parable about a brokenhearted princess, is that also Boonmee? Even the filmmaking process itself, now as much a part of the area’s history as anything else, is documented in a series of still photographs.
The sociohistorical background of the project provides an interesting lens through which to view its many mysteries, but the film’s power lies in the gentle, natural and cinematic way in which Apichatpong depicts the supernatural. He has a special skill for using sound and the beauty of nature to create a peaceful but ominous atmosphere. In the film’s most striking sequence, Apichatpong’s light touch renders the topography of a dark cave beautiful and unsettling, inspiring both awe and fear, brilliantly mirroring Boonmee’s frank acceptance of death. Yet Apichatpong’s simple, humble style also leaves room for unexpected moments of humor and levity: his films are strange and ambiguous, but they’re never dry. Uncle Boonmee may be grounded in historical reality, but through Apichatpong’s uniquely transfixing rhythms, it becomes a cinematic spell evoking another plain of existence.
Read more reviews at my blog Film Capsule.