Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The first sensation of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is insect hiss and breeze-rustled leaves, and the jungle noise blankets the movie throughout; the back-country Thai jungle itself is often shot at dusk, in natural light, so that escaped water buffalo, plantation owners and red-eyed monkey spirits seem to bleed into the trees and vines. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2010 Canneswinner—the first East Asian film to claim the Palme d'Or in a very distinguished generation—is primordial cinema, or how a Buddhist might explain stem cells, all animate objects seeming to derive from, and eventually revert to, the same verdant buzz of potential. Uncle Boonmee himself is dying of kidney failure; water seeps out of his stomach and leaks back into the earth. Ghosts reveal themselves to the living as casually as fables, flashbacks and dreams of the future settle into the narrative; at film's end, Apichatpong cuts back and forth as a monk sits placidly two quotidian places at once.
As Boonmee's renal system fails (a border-crossing Laotian employee attends to his dialysis), a sister-in-law and nephew visit the estate where he grows tamarinds and keeps bees (in Apichatpong's native northeast Thailand). At the dinner table, under mosquito-lamp glow, Boonmee's late wife fades into an unoccupied chair, and joins the conversation; Boonmee's long-lost son soon arrives, and explains how he came to become the animal specter (in a B-movie-monster hair suit) he now appears as. Boonmee worries to his more pragmatic, city-dwelling relatives over bad karma accrued by killing bugs, on death-trip wanderings through the jungle and the cave where he was born.
Yasuojiro Ozu used to cut away to the ocean, or linger on shirts hanging from a clothesline, to show how life extended beyond the frame of his stories; Apichatpong's restful camera takes in the scenery (as do his often silent characters), and allows stories and jokes (often derived from the lives of his older relatives, or from interviews with locals) to wander in; in one already famed sequence, a hammock daydream segues into the story of an aging, facial-scarred princess, lectured on the temporal superficiality of physical attributes, and then seduced, by a talking catfish. A potential weakness of this aesthetic project or interpretive lens—whichever it is—is that, if everything is everything, then that permits or explains anything on screen, without necessarily understanding it; the slack or passive or poorly thought-out or self-indulgent becomes impossible to distinguish from radical openness. But Apichatpong's filmography—as with, say, the New York School poets and their overheard culture, or the French New Wave's impulsive referentiality—becomes indelible for its consistency and singularity; Uncle Boonmee is held together by soothing scenery, hushed and lush; by sweet, sometimes awkward, searching performers, often breaking out into hokey grins; by simple, daring transmutations of story and identity. Not worldly but cosmic, at peace with death and barely possessive of the self, Uncle Boonmee is about as far away from modern urban life as a movie can take you.
Opens March 2