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Peeking Around Corners: Writing "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee" With Joe

Ryland Walker Knight


Photograph by Chaisiri Jiwarangsan © Kick the Machine Films, 2009.

This week The Auteurs began its free online premiere of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new short film, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee.

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This delicious epistle starts at a slant: we see a window made of glass slats framed by blue curtains, we see a tree or three sway outside. Then the letter begins, "Uncle," and the camera retreats to track through an idle home. There's a bed, more windows, a jacket, and this letter about an uncle the speaker seems uncertain of, or at least curious about—curious to see a film, to hear this letter read more than once. After the letter ends, in the middle of a shot, it starts again in another voice after the briefest pause to inflect the same space with a new chance at history. And the camera keeps turning corners. Objects recede and others jump into the frame, like a beam affixed with a portrait, only to be circled, and left. This is a speculative cinema, not investigative, that lives in the realm of memory's possibilities.

In this world, reincarnation's mystic, haunted, present. We see Resnais in the movements, mostly lateral, and we hear Faulkner in the doubling: the past isn't even past. As the second reading ends, we push out a window, and the letter shifts: it asks, "What was your view like? Was it like this?" We see green, always green with Joe, all these shoots and stalks and ferns and leaves thriving against clouds and a hint of sunset. A reverse shot sees a young army man snacking and looking, possibly at this verdant dream, and the compositions shift still, presentational, for three shots of the young man and a puppy, while the wind rustles that wall of jungle alive. It's a carry-over, nothing to tell us this is the past, for if Robbe-Grillet is correct, the image is always in the present tense.

Then we move again, and another voice tries to tell the story, if not read the letter, of this uncle and this town, Nabua, while we hear hoes smack into earth on a sidelong soundtrack. The letter is the organ, the principle motivator for this speculation and for this oblique reference to the region's political suppression. For what is that pod smoking out that window? What's smoke and steam to Joe? I think of the vacuum in the basement at the heart of Syndromes and a Century's second half: it sucks up the image, to show us the image as not just a malleable trace (pushed by forces within and outside the frame) but also as a whisper easily forgotten (wisps disappear). This Letter gives us the image as not porous but pregnant, smoldering and veering—the cinema as curio. You have to tuck into the corners in order to find your place with the image, where you might help blossom an idea along its slide. The roof groans and every window sits open, no boundary intact. To see, here, is to drift.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul
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