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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

It seems more a matter of Uncle Boonmee, who welcomes his past loved ones.  But that hardly matters.    Thai writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film has its origin in a 1983 book entitled A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, apparently inspired by a man named Boonmee who approached the abbot of the Buddhist temple in Weerasethakul's home town and made convincing claims about being able to rememeber past lives while meditating.  What was to be a fairly straightforward biographical film became a multi-platform art project called The Primitive.   Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the final installment in the project.  It's more coda than crescendo, and a quiet one at that; imagine The Beatles and George Martin having stuck with the original ending to "A Day in the Life," four of them humming in E-major, instead of having the chord struck on four keyboards at once.        

"Uncle Boonme's" mysteries begin with its first scene.   It's twilight.  The place is presumably a remote location in Thailand.   The time period is even more indeterminate.   While a crepuscular chorus of insects is in full swing, a few figures are seen through dense foliage.  Nearby is tethered a water buffalo.   The animal is seen in relative close-up, though emersed in shadow.   As it turns it's oblong, somewhat pointed head, it's hard to make out the ears from the horizonatal set of its horns.  As the head moves and contours are revealed through the shadow, there is the slightest hint of the human about it.   Finally, it pulls it's rope free without much diffuculty and wanders off.  A man, perhaps the father of the group previously seen, eventually gives unhurried pursuit.  He finds the buffalo deep in the brush, gently tugs on the rope and there seems agreement between man and beast that it's time to return.  Is the man Uncle Boonmee?  Perhaps from a past life?  Is he the water buffalo?   Your guess, gentle reader, is as good as mine.

That scene, like so many in "Uncle Boonmee," is decidedly prosaic, slow-developing and more or less mesmerizing.  However, not quite all is mundane here.  That first episode ends not with the man and his water buffalo, but with a figure standing nearby in the forest.  The figure is so dark as to be invisible.  Only its eyes give a sense of presence and height.   The eyes, almost comically round and bright, also clearly indicate that presence as something otherworldly.   As "Uncle Boonmee" drifts along, we'll see numerous of these dark figures, lurking, walking along, even jumping between tree tops.   One even shows up for dinner.   The figures might be some sort of emissaries from beyond, appearing when a living thing is about to die, but not even that is entirely clear.  
As critics attempt to apply description to "Uncle Boonmee" with all the effectiveness of some carnival attendee trying to toss rings over the narrow mouths of milk jugs, one word that recurs is nonlinear.  For the most part, that word is as much a misnomer as the film's title is slippery.  With a couple of notable exceptions, once we proceed from the opening scene with the lazy rebellion of the water buffalo, this narrative, mysterious though it may be, does move forward in a straight line.  

Boonmee's sister, Jen, arrives at his farm in Thailand's Isan province with her nephew, Tong.  Nothing seems terribly amiss as Boonmee and Jen catch up on each other's lives in one of the film's many long takes.  We do find out that Boonmee has a kidney illness and subsquently see him administered a crude form of dialysis, but so gentle are these people and the rhythms of their lives, it's hard to believe death will encroach upon the story.  There are scenes almost static, as Boonmee, Jen and his workers tend tamarind trees, wander about, sit down and enjoy a taste of his bees' honey.   "Chewey as bubble gum," says Jen of the honey, finding it especially refreshing after an afternoon's exertions, walking made more difficult by a club right foot.  Honey seems an apt substance for this story, both in taste and gentle flow.

 During one of their conversations, Boonmee says he believes his condition a result of his karma, having "killed too many commies."  And insects, he later adds, a good Buddhist.  Jen assures him that it is his intentions that mattered most in both instances.  The killing to which Boonmee refers is apparently an August 1965 assault by the Thai military against Communists in and around the village of Nabua.  

The director has stated that he didn't want to make a political film.   He certainly has not done so in any overt way.   Beyond allusion to the 1965 incident, there two other instances in which the military is not so much a minor theme as an ambiguous presence.   Most strikingly, there is a sequence in which Boonmee recounts a dream shortly before dying.   He speaks of a dark age in which soldiers capture people and destroy them by projecting their images into the future.  While this is recounted in Boonmee's typical soft tones, we see a kind of slideshow of still images.  One of the dark-haired, red-eyed creatures is present.  We see young men, dressed in Western fashion, jeans and t-shirts, throwing rocks, in stances of scorn and agression, presumably directed at our hirsute friend.  Then images redolent of Abu Ghraib, young men in fatigues and the hairy figure with a rope around it's neck, ultimately a group shot with some of the young men smiling for the camera.

"Uncle Boonmee" is an intentional mix of styles according to Weerasethakul.  Each of the film's six reels  with its own feel, among them "old cinema," "costume drama" and "documentary style."  One can only assume that the dream sequence is the latter.  The series of still pictures are the most striking stylistic departure from the general flow of "Uncle Boonmee," but still fit the detached, slightly haunting mood that prevails throughout.

The other major departure from the story of Uncle Boonmee comes without any obvious thread to the story.  A palanquin carries a veiled princess through the jungle.  There is a brief touching of hands between the princess and one of the carriers.   When they arrive at a secluded pond, the princess looks into the water and her relfection changes from a face disfigured to one of impeccable, youthful beauty.  However, neither that nor a brief, but intense embrace with her attendant convince her that she is anything but ugly.  Once left alone, a voice assures her from the midst of the water.  This, as we find out, is a catfish.   A very special catfish.  Once the fish's affirmmations are complete, the princess steps into the water, begins to remove her jewelry as an offering (to the guru fish or simply the water we do not know at this point) and begins to float on her back.  And then her body begins to jerk this the "costume drama" portion of the program?   If so, I clearly haven't been watching enough Masterpiece Theater.  The most remarkable thing about the scene is not the strange congress between woman and fish, but how straight the scene is played.   I had no idea why this was occuring, how it related to the central story, but I was transfixed.  And nary a soul at the screening I attended betrayed any amusement.  The act complete, we have any underwater perspective as a tail fin swishes through the water and the discarded jewelry sits at the sandy bottom.  I was reminded of the Thomas Hardy poem, "Convergence of the Twain," with it's similar glimpse of baubles discarded beneath the waves, "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"    

Though he doesn't look a dying man when we first see him - no one we see demonstrates what one might construe as vitality; perhaps it's the heat - Boonmee seems to know his days are numbered.   This belief is reinforced when he, Jen and Tong dine outdoors one evening.   First, Boonmee's dead wife, Huay, begins to materialize next to Tong.  The young man, reasonably enough, stands up and backs away from the specter.   But neither Boonmee nor Jen are especially shocked.   Before long, one of the dark figures with the Lite-Brite eyes appears and walks slowly to their table.  This, we find out is Boonsong, late son of Boonmee.   "You've let your hair grow out," says Jan, acknowledging in one of the film's few moments of understated humor what we're all wondering, audience and dinner guests alike.  Boonsong explains that his spirit has mated with a monkey ghost.   Asked and answered.   Sort of.   


Boonsong eventually wanders back amongst his hairy brethren.   But Huay sticks around and assumes three-dimensional form.   It's hard to say if she's fully flesh and blood, but she's real enough to accept an embrace from Boonmee as the two sit on his bed.  Huay is generally a silent observer, as when we see her watch Jen sleeping one morning.   She does break her silence to comfort Boonmee, when he worries about not being able to find her after death.  "Ghosts aren't attached to places, but to people," she assures him.   What is clear about Huay, at least in retrospect, is that she has reappeared to conduct Boonmee to his death.

Without fanfare of any kind, consistent with all occurs in "Uncle Boonmee," Huay, Jan, Tong and Boonmee set out through the jungle one night.   The mysterious creatures, Boonsong presumably among them, follow in their manner.   The four cross some very forbidding terrain in the dark and arrive at a cave.   A flashlight searches the contours of the cave walls, a few primitive drawings are seen and the air of mystery is heightened.  Boonmee says he feels like he's back in the womb.  Nothing occurs until morning, when we see Huay and Boonmee together.   Huay removes the tube connected to the port in Boonmee's abdomen.   Fluid runs out of the ill man and meanders through the sand.   It's hard to say what exactly the fluid is, but it seems the very essence of Boonmee. 

Guess who's coming to dinner?  One of many such creatures lurking in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Perhaps the most profound occrence in "Uncle Boonmee" is not the graceful depiction of its title character's demise, nor the funeral which follows.  Jen and young female friend are in a hotel so bland it seems a kind of purgatory.  They're sorting through offerings made at the funeral.  Tong appears at the door in the saffron orange robe of a monk.  This scene is particularly thick in its mysteries.  Why is Tong dressed and shorn like a monk?  Is it signifcant that he changes into a very Western looking pair of jeans and a t-shirt?  Why does Jen not want him to see an image on the black and white television?  And why, most enigmatically of all, do Tong and Jen look back as they're leaving the room and see doubles of themselves still watching the television?  This profound film ends with Jen and Tong sitting in restaurant-cum-karaoke bar of all places, while a pop song - "Acrophobia," by the Thai band Penguin Villa - plays.  This seems neither abitrary nor glib.  It seems a matter of continuity and acceptance, about the convergence of seeming opposites.  And it's kind of beautiful.        

"Uncle Boonmee" nonchalantly walks a tightrope over a vast pit of disaster.  So very much could go wrong with this film and so little does.  Fortunately, this story embraces the absurd and the otherworldly as gently and gracefully as Boonmee and family welcome back dead loved ones to their table, even  if one happens to look like a raven-haired, demonically red-eyed Sasquatch.  It's okay, go with it.  Watch Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and it will be frequently unclear what's happening, why it's happening or what in the world might transpire next.  What's also clear through most every scene is that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an artist.  Like many a worthwhile artist, he addresses fundamental issues or questions from a point of view so unique, it seems like he wandered in from another world himself, sans the glowing red eyes.  Actually, he doesn't even do anything so obvious as ask questions.  Mysteries are presented.  The conclusions, should you choose to draw any, are up to you      



  1. thanks for one of the best reviews of this film that i've read. and i've read them all.


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