Prior to Cannes, critical consensus was more or less that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives could be dismissed as another trip down Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s creative cul-de-sac. One Palme D’or later (on a Tim Burton-led jury, significantly) and Uncle Boonmee is a hot ticket. Much of the buzz for the 34th annual Portland International Film Festival is centered on the film, but audiences would be wise to go in with expectations different from those they might bring to more accessible fare like China’s Aftershock (2010) or South Korea’s The Housemaid (2010). Even the positive reviews of the film have difficulty dancing around its pace, which might be described as self-consciously deliberate, though others have been less generous. If you’re looking for a roller coaster ride, look elsewhere: Boonmee’s pace makes Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Nymph (2009) feel like Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate (2008). Boonmee is unabashedly an Art film with a capital A.
None of which should imply the film is boring. Weerasthakul establishes a gentle rhythm from the start, the opening scene filling the frame with a cow in shadow, near motionlessly gazing into the lens. The beast’s stare, directed right at the audience, is mirrored by the audience staring back into the dark; she sees as much as we see, looking into shadow for a hint of meaning. Eventually the cow loosens her tether and wanders into the woods where she is eventually retrieved by a farmer, and only then do we see that there is another observer—a vague figure shrouded in dark, his bright red pinprick eyes watching from the shadows. This pattern—meandering lyrical visuals punctuated with the supernatural—repeats itself throughout the film, resulting in a really effective juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical.
Further, Weerasthakul insists that we see the magical as mundane. That his characters react with only mild surprise when they encounter ghosts or other supernatural creatures reinforces the dreamlike mood of the film, and in one long key scene the characters’ calm in the face of the fantastical is played for quiet laughs. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a kind man by all respects, is dying of kidney disease. He, his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and a family friend (Sakda Kaewbuadee) are having dinner on a second-floor porch when a transparent apparition appears seated at the table. This is Boonmee’s wife and Jen’s older sister Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), dead for 19 years but showing up now drawn by Boonmee’s illness. Rather than show any sort of surprise, Jen offers her some food. It’s an artificial response rendered naturally, and somehow feels like a combination of table manners and the nonplussed mellow of having lived a full life. Their subsequent conversation is equally relaxed, with Huay’s ghost even demystifying the afterlife by casually offering that “heaven is overrated—there’s nothing there.” As if drawn by the ghost, next to drop in on dinner is Boonmee’s long-missing son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), the dark, red-eyed figure from the opening scene. Years earlier, Boonsong became fascinated by a shadow he photographed in the woods and, obsessed with seeing it again, he spent more and more time roaming in the forests. He eventually found the monkey ghosts, mated with a female and transformed into one himself, as we see when he sits at the table under the light. Covered nose to toes in long silky black fur, he looks like a small onyx Chewbacca. This also fails to get any significant response until Jai, Boonmee’s attendant, walks into the room and looks at Boonsong sideways. After being introduced, Jai casually comments, “I’m sorry to say, he looks like a monkey.”
There’s a gentle but unmistakable absurdity to the film. Weerasthakul playfully refuses to indulge any of the tropes of ghost stories or supernatural cinema, and further, studiously avoids giving the viewer any easy points of entry. There is no plot or narrative thread, the characters are lightly drawn, and the past life vignettes lack individual resolution or any internal logic. These lives Boonmee recalls are shown ambiguously—are they dreams? Flashbacks? Which character is meant to be past-Boonmee? The only choice one has is to be open to the experience of watching these scenes unfold, and even then there’s little meaning to be gleaned from them; only in retrospect might the meandering cow, the shadowy figure in the opening scene be interpreted as another of Boonmee’s lives, observed by a supernatural creature that may or may not be his son. The film could be read as a series of tone poems without losing any of its impact, and perhaps might be best viewed as a sort of art installation without any of the expectations one normally has of a piece of cinema.
Naming Boonmee the best film of Cannes 2010 was an idiosyncratic and perverse choice, and it remains to be seen if opening the world’s eyes to Thai cinema outside the genre ghettos of Muay Thai and horror with this particular film will help or hurt. If the press screening was any indication, one in three people with a taste for international cinema will walk away scratching their heads. Casual moviegoers expecting a supernatural thriller might take up rakes and torches and storm the box office like villagers in a Frankenstein picture. But those seeking a singular experience will find the film to be completely unlike any they’ve seen before, something open to interpretation and discussion, mysterious and beautiful.
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” will be screened at the 34th Portland International Film Festival, February 10-26, 2011. For more information, visit www.nwfilm.org or follow the fest on Twitter @nwfilmcenter.
Eric Evans lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and dog. He makes his living as a magazine and direct mail art director but would rather be taking underwater photos in exotic locales and writing about Asian films for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow.