So far, 2011 for me has been very much the year of cinematic metempsychosis, which is certainly to say it’s been a unique and eye-opening few months of film viewing to be sure. I guess I could say Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void somewhat blandly opened the floodgates at the end of last year with an old-fashioned human to human reincarnation, but ever since I’ve frequently witnessed the cycle of existence being broadened and redefined. Like The New World and Le Quattro Volte – the former only figuratively evoking these themes and the latter dealing directly with them – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest Cannes winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is fixated on the idea that life vibrates in everything, as well as the suggestion that our conventional view of a lifetime full of experiences and memories need not apply only to humans. Furthermore, these films offer a perpetual shuffling of consciousnesses. Spontaneously and with reckless abandon, they will switch “protagonists” from human to animal to tree to wind to dust, caring nothing for the Hollywood paradigm that only a person can carry a story.
If Apichatpong’s seems the most “Buddhist” of these films from the outset, it’s largely because the Thai director has grown increasingly fashionable over the past year, forcing overzealous journalists to fit him inside an exotic box. Truth is, any given set of tenets likely didn’t even enter Weerasethakul’s purview during his making of the film. What he’s after is more personal, a reflection of a highly specific constellation of concerns he has built into his artistic personality throughout his career and life. Uncle Boonmee is a tribute to memory and history, and what’s so fascinating about it is that its many histories – personal, cinematic, political, as well as the history of Weerasethakul’s own career and that of his titular character – are working in sync throughout the film on a rocky timeline that jolts from present to past to future as if the concept of time is merely of practical use. The particular sequence of events Weerasethakul is unfolding is nonlinear, but not in the sense that it is needlessly fragmented and could be refashioned in a way that makes linear causal sense. Weerasethakul unites his scenes through feeling and the progression that results is a purely metaphysical one.
The crux of the film, as the humorously blunt title makes clear enough, is Uncle Boonmee himself (Thanapat Saisaymar), an old farmer dying from kidney disease in the impoverished and climatically severe northeast portion of Thailand called Laos. This underrepresented region was the setting for Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (a prologue of sorts to the feature), and its devastating history of Communist oppression and immigrant exploitation weighs heavily on Boonmee, who regretfully was forced to join Communist forces in a handful of farmland massacres in the 1960s. Boonmee is haunted by these experiences as he steadily approaches his death, and the occasion musters up apparitions of his past lives in a variety of forms. But despite Boonmee’s rather ugly past, Weerasethakul views his situation with compassion. After all, from his perspective of life, it would be disingenuous to judge a being based on one of its individual life spans when so many others are available from which to pull spiritual renewal.
And that is ultimately what Weerasethakul is doing with the film’s abstract form: seeking spiritual renewal in cinematic renewal. Uncle Boonmee is a very modular film made up of different vignettes, many of them episodes from what we can only guess are Boonmee’s past lives. The film begins on one in which a bull breaks free from its rope and charges into the woods in the Laos countryside at dusk. The animal’s liberation is quite moving, but shortly thereafter its owner appears in the scene to round him up, bringing him back to his farm. Whether Boonmee is in the shape of the animal or the human is left to the imagination, but given his present sense of guilt it is tempting to view him as the bull, especially since so many of the film’s other vignettes deal with some form of liberation from social or domestic norms.
The best of these is a mini-narrative featuring a princess who takes a break from her fanciful ride through the jungle on the shoulders of male servants to admire a luminous waterfall (shades of The Last of the Mohicans). In the manner of a fairy tale, she sees a reflection of her younger self in the water and grows angry at the youthful beauty she believes she has now lost. One of the servants – with whom the princess makes amorous eye-contact a moment earlier – approaches and reassures her that she is beautiful, which has the reverse effect of augmenting her disappointment. The surprising arrival of a talking catfish manages to soothe her pain in an idiosyncratic episode of metaphysical underwater sex.
Weerasethakul shoots these scenes with dreamlike immediacy and an old-fashioned day-for-night effect that bolsters the deep blues and greens in the color palette. In the princess sequence, the film’s stylization jockeys unexpectedly between the mannered staging, framing and visual effects of a ’60s costume drama and something more termitic, with loose, documentary-like compositions (the close-up of the servant from the princess’s point of view stands out) and a handheld camera that reacts spontaneously to Weerasethakul’s odd catfish sex scenario. The princess, floating around in the whirlpool, gives herself up to the fish, at which point the camera ducks under the water between her legs to fill the frame with bubbles. It’s the film’s most abstract image, quickly turning away from the narrative for a purely formal investigation of the agitated water. That the bubbles gradually come to resemble sperm only enhances the film’s all-encompassing love of life, the fact that new lives seem to be crop up everywhere, even in the throes of bestiality. Weerasethakul holds on the bubbles for quite some time, letting a deep underwater rumble dominate the soundtrack, but still I had an itch for him to keep the shot on screen for even longer as it’s one of the film’s most memorable and entrancing images.
Human-animal sex is not a new subtext in Weerasethakul’s work, but here it acquires added prominence and a uniquely comic effect. It’s viewed as a passage from human to animal, a transformation from a domesticated entity to something more untamed, a creature without limitations and boundaries, and it’s reflected most hilariously in the film’s kookiest invention: the monkey ghost. This red-eyed ape, a hulking beast that looks curiously like some bad sci-fi monster from a B movie, first appears in the woods to where the bull escapes. The moment feels like the entrance of the monolith in 2001: all of a sudden a pair of red eyes just emerge from the darkness without context or explanation.
Clarification is saved for a scene about 15 minutes later when Boonmee, his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and Jen’s son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, who plays a notable role in Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century) sit on the porch at night. After Boonmee’s long-dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears in ghost form at the table – eliciting not fear and uncertainty but a jovial family reunion complete with a photo album – a monkey ghost approaches from the darkness, its eyes at first the only visual indicator of its presence. When it does arrive at the table, it reveals itself as Boonmee’s long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). Boonsong admits to wandering into the forest to “mate with a monkey ghost” many years ago, which turned him into one of them for good. Following the slight shock of this revelation, the conversation continues in the manner of a rather prosaic family reunion, with Boonmee asking the simple questions a father would normally ask a son he has not seen for years.
This casual acceptance of that which is unknown and extraordinary is omnipresent in the film, and it has the effect of aligning the more overtly mystical elements directly with Weerasethakul’s dry country realism. There is a notion of counterbalance everywhere in the film: personal and political, past and present, archaic (Weerasethakul’s conscious integration of older cinematic techniques and 16mm) and modern (the sanitary urban funeral mass at the end of the film, the credit song by Penguin Villa that sounds like Thailand’s answer to the Jonas Brothers). Right after the porch sequence, Weerasethakul expels the mystical elements for the subsequent scene, a straightforward afternoon walk through the farm between Boonmee and Jen in which the two of them lick fresh honey from the roof of a bee hive. Moments like this one have the kind of lazy countryside patience typical of Weerasethakul’s work. His long takes focusing on relaxation and healing (quite literally in one shot inside the house with Tong tending to Boonmee’s kidney disease) allow for a gentle respite from the ghost story, which is not to say that the latter doesn’t share the same willful restraint.
The film’s political undertones simmer to the foreground in the final thirty minutes when Boonmee, Jen and Tong enter a cave in the jungle at dusk, obeying an instinct Boonmee had during a recollection of a past life. Their journey through the thick jungle brush is riveting, as Weerasethakul’s dense soundtrack communicates the idea that the woods are vibrating with life especially at this late hour (of course, an offhand shot of a pack of monkey ghosts confirms that it is). Once in the cave, as fireflies glimmer off the ceiling, Boonmee relates a troubling story of countryside warfare and oppression, to which the film provides a series of still photographs. The photographs, interestingly enough taken as documents of Weerasethakul’s own brief filmmaking history in the region, particularly during the production of A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, feature soldiers inspecting the farmland and eventually men dressed in ape costumes communing with the soldiers. It’s a radical hybrid of Boonmee and Weerasethakul’s memories and an unexpected aesthetic choice for such a crucial moment in the film, but it pays off beautifully, suggesting that the unity of collective history can provide catharsis from oncoming death.
Additional heft is invited to the death scene in its allusions to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In Boonmee’s story, he speaks of monkey ghosts inside caves being spotlighted obtrusively by xenophobic soldiers (obviously paralleling the exploitation of illegal immigrants in the area), an image that recalls Plato’s discussion of a group of individuals finally seeing the light beyond the shadows on the cave’s wall. Shortly thereafter, Jen wakes up on the cave floor in the morning with Boonmee’s dead body beside her. She’s positioned halfway in the dark of the cave and halfway in the morning light, and as she sits up her body becomes fully lit. In doing so, Weerasethakul discovers a way to make the death of his human protagonist an instance of uplifting enlightenment, because after all Boonmee has many more lives to live. It’s this generosity, this ability to find renewal in the end of something, that makes Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives such a warmly transcendent film. In its lament of the death of Boonmee and even the death of an old way of cinema, Weerasethakul is also looking ahead to the mysteries that lay beyond.