Uncle Boonmee puts mystical Buddhism in action, the abstract into practice. It’s a treatise on the illusion we call our lives, a densely spiritual and politically symbolic film about fungible borders: between life and death, between animals and people, between the hallucinatory and the real, even between nations. Shooting in Northeast Thailand, where he grew up, Apichatpong adopts the region’s animism and suffuses the lushly verdant landscape with so much life it becomes a character—or, stuffed with characters, a natural world swirling with spirits, where Monkey Ghosts dine with men, catfish fuck human princesses, and Laotians mingle amicably with native Thais.
The spirit world has been set aflutter by the kidney ailment afflicting Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), renal failure he blames on his karma from a lifetime of killing insects and Communists. Apichatpong is an observer, not a manipulator, and he sets his camera down to record long stretches of backcountry time: sometimes to film basic medical care procedures, sometimes to capture events more magical; Uncle Boonmee juxtaposes the numinous with the quotidian. (The idea is no better embodied than by the monk who wants to go to 7-Eleven.) In one scene, Uncle inspects his farm’s tamarind crop and honey production with his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas); in the next, their supper is interrupted by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife—who gradually fades into an empty chair—followed shortly by their son, now a Monkey Ghost, a slinking, hulking mass, black as the Thai countryside’s night, a teenwolf-type with laser-red pinpoint eyes. It’s a terrifying image that first appears in the pre-title sequence, in which a bull wriggles free of his tether and wanders a misted, crepuscular jungle before a young man recaptures him.
Does that scene depict one of Boonmee’s past lives? If so, he is the bull? The young man? One of the trees in the background? Later, an aged princess gazes into the waters of a magical falls and chats with the resident catfish—merely the form taken by the lord of the lake, who soon penetrates her like a wriggly phallus. (Apichatpong has said he shot this sequence in the style of bygone costume dramas from Thai television, as though equating “past lives” with “past aesthetic styles,” as though narratives are a form of life.) We never quite understand how these episodes fit into the larger narrative, but they lock in neatly with the movie’s theme. Every moment of the movie underscores the idea that we are all simply transient and transmutable spirits, that nothing is quite real; at the end, two characters watch television in a hotel room while simultaneously walking out of the room, Apichatpong’s way of introducing the concept of multiverses, showing merely two examples of the infinite possible realities. The director’s previous features have asked us to reconsider the way we usually watch movies. So does this one, but Uncle Boonmee also challenges us to rethink the way we see the whole world. It’s life-changing cinema.