(Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)
Circles of Life
“What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open but I can’t see. Or are my eyes closed?” The titular character of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fifth feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives wonders this aloud as he approaches death. We might wonder the same thing while watching this delightfully beguiling film. Is what we’re seeing really happening? Or is it merely a dream? And even more literally, since the majority of the film is dimly lit offering only half-glimpsed images, the viewer may very well feel as though his or her eyes are closed. There’s a quiet meditative quality to Weerasethakul’s film – indicative of all his work so far – but it’s certainly never a bore. Weerasethakul somehow manages to engage his audience both consciously and subconsciously – truly a feat of surreal filmmaking.
The film’s primary narrative concerns a landowner named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) suffering from kidney failure and living out his final days at his homestead in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand. His sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) and her nephew (Sakda Kaewbuadee) come to visit and to presumably (though it’s never mentioned) offer family by his side as he passes away. As the inevitable draws nearer, the surrounding jungle bustles with spirits and ghosts – animal and human alike – that sense his encroaching death. Two such spirits visit him personally to help him transition into his next life. Both the ghost of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) and his missing son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) in the form of a hairy monkey spirit – after having mated with one – appear unexpectedly as Boonmee, Jen, and Tong sit down for dinner one evening. The scene provides one of the best and most satisfying images in Weerasethakul’s repertoire – the three living converse candidly and jovially with a translucent Huay and a red-eyed, Chewbacca-like Boonsong. Weerasethakul dispenses with typical questions of how and why this interaction is possible and focuses on what it means for Boonmee. His days are numbered, but Huay comforts him and alleviates some of his fear of dying.
The first half of the film moves along at a steady pace allowing for necessary mediation of life and death. Here Weerasethakul offers beautiful shots of the Thai countryside and lovingly captures the simplicity of rural life. The windows in Boonmee’s home remain perpetually open letting the sun pour over the darkest corners of the house. Tamarind trees line the orchards on his property. Bees swarm around the makeshift honey field shelter where Boonmee and Jen rest. Weerasethakul paints the region of his childhood with grace and tenderness. The evidence that Weerasethakul grew up in Isan is overwhelming; he touches on the region’s violent past mentioning bloody clashes with communists and on Thai attitudes toward migrant workers in the character of his Laotian caretaker Jaai (Samud Kugasang).
If the film’s first half follows a fairly conventional narrative, the second half is decidedly more abstract following a complete detour of an interlude in the form of a fable. A facially scarred princess mourns her imperfections at a secluded pool of water where only a catfish witnesses her sorrow. He assures her of her intrinsic beauty, but she asks him to change her nonetheless. What follows is perhaps the film’s most discussed and easily ridiculed scene. The princess wades into the water, begins undressing, and ultimately makes love to the fish. It is a strange scene, but certainly not one egregious enough to warrant the dismissal of the entire film. Questions should arise: Is the catfish Boonmee in a previous life? Did this act of love bring him good or bad karma? How does the sequence relate to the film as a whole? But, unfortunately too much has been made of the scene, and one would do better to remember it’s a brief sequence in a film full of disparate images and ideas. Uncle Boonmee does not fail or succeed on catfish sex alone as some in either camp have asserted. If anything, it speaks to Weerasethakul’s unique position in contemporary cinema that these images he’s captured spark such discussion at all.
When the film returns to Boonmee, time is rapidly running out for the aging man. He convinces Jen and Tong to accompany him and Huay as they venture into the jungle and into the depths of unexplored caves. This, Boonmee declares, is where he’d like to die – the place of his birth from some unknown previous life. This one, it seems, he can’t recall entirely. Here Boonmee’s life ends in the arms of loved ones both dead and alive. The remainder of the film follows Jen and Tong as they attend the uncle’s funeral and then return to the city.
Uncle Boonmee is a film without definitive conclusions and, as the director intends it, one with innumerable interpretations. It’s a mediation on life and death, but it’s also a film that presumes to know very little of either one. The two comingle throughout the film in the most casual of ways. We quickly learn to accept and even expect the presence of Huay and the monkey ghosts lingering in the nearby jungle. Death is never far from life and vice versa. As with Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century before it, Weerasethakul is again concerned here with dualities: the states of life and death, hovering between consciousness and subconscious, and the deliberate construction of the story that splits the two related but different halves of the story. Too, there is an undercurrent duality of traditional spirituality and spreading modernism. Presumably Bangkok city dwellers, Jen and Tong scoff at certain elements of Isan life: Tong is amused by his lack of knowledge of the eastern dialect and Jen quickly dismisses Boonmee’s request to take over his farm after his death. She cites her distrust of migrant workers as the reason. Their adherence to the constructs of modernity comes to a head in the film’s final shot as Jen and Tong stare lifelessly at a TV screen. They desire to pull themselves away to satiate their hunger but can only do so in their imagination. Like the juxtaposition of settings in Syndromes, the scene shouldn’t be read as a rebuke, but possibly the slight preference this filmmaker has over the other.
Rural life is not necessarily romanticized in Uncle Boonmee, but Weerasethakul sure creates a host of beautiful and memorable images in the countryside – the opening shot of a water buffalo attempting escape into the jungle, Huay sitting near Jen’s sun-kissed bed one morning before disappearing, the aforementioned dinner sequence. Each lends itself to Uncle Boonmee’s greatest quality: its ability to make its audience stop and meditate. Very little is straightforward in Weerasethakul’s film – Are we to believe both the buffalo and the catfish were Boonmee in a previous life? What to make of the focus on inter-species copulation? Did Jen and Tong really visit the karaoke bar, or were they too glued to the screen? – but he proves yet again that the best cinema is the kind that demands to be repeatedly viewed and discussed. Weerasethakul has created a work that’s slyly cryptic, but never begs to be taken too seriously. It’s subtly humorous at times and positively engaging throughout.