(Dreams, desires and transmigration of the soul: beastly glow in Uncle Boonmee. The actor Geerasak Kulhong. Images courtesy of Strand Releasing.)
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, known colloquially to his friends on the festival circuit as “Joe,” is one of those unclassifiable directors whose movies offer a continuously open, adventurous and exciting way of watching, thinking and dreaming about what the medium is capable of.
His astounding fifth feature (he also shared credit on another film), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the Palme d’Or last May at Cannes, in a jury presided over by Tim Burton, just opened theatrically in New York and moves around the rest of the country this spring.
Be prepared to be wowed or get in an argument about its worth and value.
My take is that of an enthusiast. I was restrained though indeed quite thrilled, watching a live feed of the Cannes closing awards from the Debussy, when Burton made his announcement. The Palme d’Or is arguably the most artistically significant prize in movie culture, but I’m not sure how much if any cachet it carries here.
(New York magazine critic David Edelstein is probably dead on when he says: “Uncle Boonmee is entrancing—and also, if you’re not sufficiently steeped in its rhythms, narcotizing. Truth to tell, I wouldn’t be surprised if a good percentage of its audience, even at the Film Forum, finds it excruciatingly boring.”)
Strand is releasing the movie, the third consecutive feature of Joe’s the company has handled. As patrons of a very particular brand of art cinema (so specialized it’s not even niche), I salute them.
Weerasethakul exists in a world of his own, drawing on experimental and abstract theories to make haunting movies about the most primal, direct and accessible emotions. His two previous movies, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, were spellbinding, beautiful and enigmatic films that brilliantly utilized allusive two-part structures to tell stories about thwarted relationships, love and regret.
Joe also draws on folk tales, anecdotes, oral histories and ethnography in devising his highly original and beguiling movies that negotiate the spiritual and the material domains. (Syndromes and a Century was quite autobiographical, drawing on the background of how his parents met.)
The new entrancing and strange new film echoes the second section of Tropical Malady. In that earlier film, the first part tracks the playful relationship that develops between a provincial ice cream truck driver and a good-looking soldier. The second part is about the truck driver pursuing the soldier deep into the Thai jungle, believing he has transmogrified into a ghost tiger. “The movie is an homage to my home, and to a certain kind of cinema I grew up with,” Joe said.
Like all of the director’s films, Uncle resists simple classification in narrative terms. It is best just to submit to the dreamy, slow and sensual rhythms that simply take hold.
The movie is roughly divided into three parts. Joe adopted the Western counter identity during the time he studied painting and filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He opens the new tale deep in the jungle in northeast Thailand. Suffering from advanced, incurable stage of acute liver failure, the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar, a nonprofessional) is preparing emotionally and spiritually for his death.
He is tended over by an illegal Lao worker (Sakda Kaesbuadee) and a friend Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). As he recounts stories about his past, he is jolted by two startling visions: the ghost of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) who materializes at his side and even more unaccountably, the altered though unmistakable form of his son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). The son disappeared trying to learn the provenance of a strange human and animal hybrid species called “ghost monkeys,” human shaped beasts outfitted in thick, dark hair and distinguished by their piercing red eyes.
As he is administered dialysis, Uncle Boonmee is naturally curious about the source of his illness and wonders what past calamity, outrage or violation he committed might account for the particularly brutal and painful sentence visited on his present life.
That inquiry yields the movie’s second movement with Boonmee taking his family deeper into the jungle to locate a strange and eerily beautiful hilltop cave that he believes marks the birthplace of his first life. He recounts fantastic and exotic stories about the curious sexual plight of a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) captured beneath an incandescent waterfall. In the mesmerizing visual sequence, she is tricked into believing she’s been transformed into a younger, pristine version of herself.
What exactly it all means and how it exists within the larger framework is not wholly clear. But that is also spectacularly beside the point, as it is never necessary to understand in the conventional sense how the pieces exactly fit. Weerasethakul simply invites the spectator to take in the gorgeous imagery. Weerasethakul draws on the water and light that imbues the moment with a hypnotic, painterly image of extraordinary beauty.
That moment is followed by an equally strange sexual encounter between the princess and a catfish, and the sexual trickery that ensues, the princess opening her legs and allowing the catfish access to her own private realm, opens up and questions whether it is the princess or the catfish who constitutes one of the title character’s previous lives. Weerasethakul is drawn to the fantastic, but he is concerned with the particular, almost hand-made style of filmmaking. He privileges emotion, freedom, imagination and spontaneity.
The open and highly associative imagery is balanced by serious emotional connection to the material. The effect is haunting, graceful and profound, like a succession of still images and photographs he deploys to advance the story further, telling of a strange group of future travels returning to the present (shades of Chris Marker’s La jetee).
This kind of storytelling is bound to frustrate some people because it leave so much unanswered.At the same time, it turns cinema into music in the sense it violates rules of order and segmented, linear storytelling in favor of a mélange of moods, feelings and actions. That leads to the third section where a life is examined and talked about, leading to yet another ghost-like appearance.
Those familiar with the director’s output are likely to understand the mood and rhythms a little easier than most. Those who encounter his work for the first time might feel like people did at the start of the twentieth century coming to terms with an enthralling, provocative and highly original new art form.
Uncle Boonmee is art cinema of a very high order. It is also a great movie.