Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—which last night won the 2010 Palme d'Or, becoming one of the most adventurous, most experimental, and best winners of that award in Cannes history—is a film that you slip into as you would a warm blanket, greet it as you would an old, dear friend, sigh with contentment as when a gentle breeze cools the end of a day. Expanding on his Primitive Project—which includes the short A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, which debuted online on our site—centered around the northeast border of Thailand, Uncle Boonmee stretches out in the countryside to take a final, deep, accepting breath of air and live life before passing on, from animals to men to ghosts and myths.
Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a good-hearted, land-owning widower, is taken ill with kidney failure and retires to his farm to be looked after by his sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas), a Laotian immigrant, and a family friend, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). At night, Boonmee’s house and his ailment attracts the forest’s ghosts, first his deceased wife fading in at the dinner table, and then, most mysteriously of all, the couple’s son, who disappeared years ago and now reveals that he has become a hairy, red-eyed Ghost Monkey after chasing another one into the forest and mating with it. Ghosts and myths swarm in the darkness, quietly menacing but keeping their distance, the threat more of mystery than danger or haunting, a reminder of memories and the history of the land. These things are of another side to things, but what that side is is impossible to say. With the constant chirp of bugs at night or the beating of the sun during the day filling the soundtrack, life is slowed down to the hypnotic, warm pace of nature, smiling conversations, and the rhythm of hazy memories, recollected children’s tales, the flow of village folklore.
The film is full of life, dead and alive, and suffuse with gentleness. Boonmee and his family greet the dead with smiles and love, and the film emits a luminescence as tactile as the milky forest chiaroscuro of its 16mm photography and as ambient as the tender embrace between Boonmee and his dead wife, the netted, soft rainbow pastels that paint the dead woman's view of her sleeping sister, and Tong’s silent willingness to follow the family into the deepest forest and emerge a changed man. The natural, unexplained and unexplainable flow of reincarnation that pulses through the film—which diverts to tell the story of a water buffalo, of a scarred princess and her catfish lover, of a magic cave of chalky silver, strange shapes and blind fish hidden in the woods, of briefly stepping away from a troubled, mournful life—calms everyone, and the film itself. The Ghost Monkeys look like frightful beasts, eyes like red bulbs as they creep and swing through the trees, but Boonmee creates a world where there may be anxiety over the unknown but there is no fear, only acceptance and care. A richness of time, a human time. Passings and returns ebb out of human life into the unexplained, into the myth and folklore, where sharing fresh honey on a sunny day is as beautiful as embracing a ghost, the dark life of the jungle, or the simple heartbreak of the final draining of Boonmee’s beleaguered kidney. It is probably as simple a film as Apichatpong, whose cinema is lovingly cryptic, can get, as if a human radiance humbly simplifies everything, from the mysteries of death and melancholy, to the origin of the world and friendship, family, and the dead gathering over a night’s dinner.