Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Overall, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn’t surpass his previous work, the near-masterpiece Syndromes and a Century. The problems that cropped up in the second half of Syndromes are here as well. In both movies, the writer-director leaves a hazy, rural district behind for contemporary urban settings. The cinematic heart so prevalent in country life yields to the filmmaker’s less than original observation that modern life is shallow and enervated. Weerasethakul needs to move beyond this, because it hobbles him as an artist and leaves you/me/us empty and cold at the end of his work—when we should still be privy to the elation in which he earlier held us tight.

In Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul exercises his shaman-like gift for enveloping us in a dream-state further than he has before. The ease with which the director gets the viewer to accept a ghost wife keeping company her very much alive husband (draining his diseased kidney and dressing the wound, while placidly answering his questions re the afterlife) narcotizes the right audiences who are intellectually, spiritually hungry for someone’s—anyone’s—insight into where our essence goes when the body’s thrown away, and so it’s with resentment that I’m pulled back into the mundane world of rubes blankly prostrate in front of a hotel room idiot box. I understand Weerasethakul’s point: that the serene, bee-keeping farmer Uncle Boonmee had more life in him as he lay dying than his survivors do whilst they are supposedly living. Yet it’s a point hardly worth the emphasis the director gives it. The movie has nowhere to go once the title character dies—a great disappointment given that the narrative has seemingly gone everywhere in its protagonist’s final days.

In truth, the timeframe here is anyone’s guess, and the director intends for us to be lost in the languorous heat of northeast Thailand, through an extended outdoor supper with two memorable uninvited guests, and then later, in another nighttime sequence, when the ghost wife leads the living on an arduous long walk through thickets of jungle brush, taking them into the mouth of a cave, bending across a low cavern adorned by stalactites, and ultimately emerging into an iron ore room of glittering walls—diamond shining brilliance in the dark. It’s here that the movie’s fulminations on life and death reach a giddy, dislocating apotheosis, and it’s also here, in this remote spot, that the director’s style most clearly evokes—of all wondrous things—Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Weerasethakul shoots this passage a bit like the planetarium scene from that earlier film, with the disembodied voices of Boonmee and Huay’s ghost heard long before we see them physically (a la Allen and Diane Keaton) wander about this otherworldly setting. With the cave’s contrasting, at times imperceptible, hues of gray, Uncle Boonmee might just as well be in black and white.

The first Weerasethakul film I watched, six or seven years ago, was Tropical Malady, which I vehemently detested. Tropical Malady wasn’t only boring and senseless, it was—God help us—ironic. Weerasethakul has come a long way in his intervening two features. In Uncle Boonmee, he addresses the big, universal concerns and does so with such love and respect, humor, and mastery of cinema that I was swept away into his tenderly expressed cosmic visions. I didn’t want to leave them—or them to leave me. The low-key, after dark dinner with the title character, his sardonic sister-in-law, Jen, and bashful nephew, Tong, could stand as a classic of drawing-room comedy, even if it takes place in a rustic, open-air pavilion curtained by blackest night. There are lines that draw laughter: earlier, Jen has espoused her casual racism toward a Laotian émigré on Boonmee’s farm; when her brother-in-law urges her to forsake the crowded metropolis and reside amid the bucolic splendor of honeybees (after he’s gone), she retorts, “How can you expect me to live here with all the ghosts and the migrant workers?”

And yet these leap-into-the-void tonal shifts are so much more than amusing. In the night, at the supper table, in the movie’s most resonant, ambiguous section, a beast with glinting red eyes intrudes upon the company. Boonmee’s estranged son, long-lost, presumed dead, turns up having transmogrified into a gorilla. (Like Flannery O’Connor’s Enoch Emery, he has “found himself” only after transcending human form.) In flashbacks, we see the son, camera in hand, as a landscape photographer. In one of his shots, a Sasquatch figure materializes in the near center of the frame; and in some sort of nod to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the gorilla son tells his unevolved relatives, “I searched for the thing in the photo.” Until, of course, he became it. The unspoken parallels—descending into madness, corruption, bestiality, or becoming an artist—are all there without Weerasethakul alighting on any single explication. The unsaid: Auntie Jen, who up to this point has always spoken her mind, drifts away from the table in silence, in what looked to me like a kind of guilt for what happened to her late sister’s son—the guilt of neglect, most likely. And yet… to use that phrase again, when the immigrant caregiver from Laos arrives at the height of the others’ mystification, he says plainly what they cannot: “Uncle, he’s a monkey!” Gales of laughter erupted from the festival audience I caught the film with; even so, Weerasethakul works at such a level of assurance that gently turning the scene into a joke doesn’t rob the premise of its dark power.

There’s one animal allegory that fails to translate. A sequence involving a talking catfish is too contrived to succeed either as fantasy or farce. And the writer-director, for all his exploration, ceases to keep pushing. He lulls us into meditation, then (self-) indulges in a deliberately banal coda of Jen and Tong’s narcissistic behavior after Boonmee’s funeral. Weerasethakul surely has the native intelligence to realize that we don’t need him to build in a rude awakening. Simply walking outside the theatre at film’s end will accomplish that. — NPT

March 1, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens at Film Forum in New York on March 2.