The man called 'Uncle'
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, 2010), is ostensibly about an old man undergoing renal failure, and his final days--but don't let that synopsis fool you. It's steeped deep in the beauty of Northern Thailand's countryside and jungle--but no, this is not your usual 'beauty-of-nature' flick. It's filled with spirits and strange creatures and even stranger occurrences--but don't let those elements waylay you either. The film is not quite as fabulist as it sounds, and not easy to engage with (for one, it moves at a pace a snail would find leisurely) but it can be ultimately fulfilling, if you manage to cotton on to what the director is trying to do.
As mentioned, we have this dying uncle (Thanapat Saisaymar); he's visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, who's often in Weerasethakul's films). While at the dinner table they're visited by Boonmee's dead wife Huay (Nattakarn Aphaiwonk) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who isn't dead but transformed into a 'monkey ghost' when he chased and mated with a similar creature. Huay's entrance is simple enough--she solidifies out of the thin air--while Boonsong's isn't: a pair of glowing red eyes (an allusion to the ape-men in Kubrick's 2001?) rises from the staircase, cloaked in deep shadow. Weerasethakul had a practical reason for keeping the creature half-lit (it helped hide the fake costume), but the quiescent ambient sound, the total lack of background music, the sheer profundity of the surrounding dark gives Boonsong's entrance an impressive if sombre power.
But that's not what the film's all about, it's not what gives Weerasethakul's work its unique flavor. Once Boonsong steps away from the shadows and Huay greets her husband and his relatives, talk devolves to gossip and health news. All sorts of spirits and fantastic creatures (as Boonsong notes) may be drawn to Boonmee's approaching death, but the living and human welcome them as they might any dinner guest, and insist on bringing them up to date with affairs as they would a long-absent friend or relative. Later, there's this interlude involving a princess and a catfish in a pond admiring her, and what captures your attention isn't the catfish (a lump in the water at first) but the princess' ease in adjusting to the the idea of a talking fish and eventual, sensual response. The fantastic and the familiar encountering each other, accepting each other, achieving intercourse with each other in every sense of the word.
At the same time Weerasethakul presents the quotidian as something extraordinary. Boonmee, a landowner, goes out to his tamarind plantation. In one of the finest sequences in the film he has Jen taste the honey from his apiary, straight from the comb; he notes that the syrup has the flavor of tamarind and maize--a sort of sweet-and-sour combo. Jen, delighted, exclaims that it's like chewing gum. Boonmee rests at a small hut he's built for the purpose, drains the tubing of his errant liver, takes a nap, and there's this lovely moment where Jen gazes at his sleeping back while he lies on the hut floor, surrounded by the orchard's bright green beauty.
Critics note how nonjudgmental Weerasethakul is; that said, I doubt if everything and everyone in the film is as benign as they appear, or that the film is as light-hearted as it makes itself out to be. Boonsong turned his back on his father and fellow humans to become a monkey ghost (did he think of what his disappearance might do to his parents?); Jen's nephew Tong serves as a Buddhist monk, and on his last day sneaks out to Jen's and his sister's hotel room where he insists on taking a warm shower (“What if someone sees you?” he's asked; “Then let me in,” he replies--the scene has this faint air of incestuous hanky-panky about it).
Most ambiguous of all is Boonmee. When he visits his plantation he jokes with his workers--illegal immigrants from Laos--in awkward French, the language of their former colonizers; the workers laugh appreciatively, as they would with any boss who has the power to have them deported. “I've killed too many communists,” Boonmee later frets, thinking the karmic burden this represents won't allow him to reincarnate as a higher being. “You killed communists for the nation, right?” Jen asks, presumably in an attempt to ease guilty feelings; no reply. Possibly Boonmee was a member of the local counter-insurgency forces, which were known to have inflicted violence, even killings, against communist sympathizers in regions like the Isan countryside--but Weerasethakul doesn't over-elaborate; he suggests that Boonmee has a troubled conscience, and moves on.
Perhaps the film's most extraordinary passage is a dream Boonmee describes, depicted by Weerasethakul as a series of stills a la Chris Marker's La Jetee (1962). He talks of going into the future in a time machine (yep--Marker); of an unnamed ruling authority that can make people disappear; of a light shining on him that can make him disappear; of having to run. It's an unsettling moment, and I can't say I have absolutely deciphered it, but the dream suggests a vision of retribution--perhaps revenge. The scenes that follow in the cave suggest, for all their melancholy sparkle and beauty, that Boonmee accepts this judgment as his fate (he sits, his head bent down, with all the wordless pathos of a wounded-down toy, seepage trailing from his side). A beautiful film, one of the finest of last year--of the last several years--and a fitting winner of the Cannes' Golden Palm.
First published in Businessworld, 8.18.11