(Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) 

Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Thailand . 2010

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"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious." - Albert Einstein

Set in the dense Nabua region of Thailand, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's masterly Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film about myths and memories and images that evoke the thin line between the world of reality and the world of spirit. Winner of the Palme D'or at the Cannes Film Festival, it is not a film that can be approached in the normal way we view films - looking for a coherent narrative, and then following a plot until its resolution. Inspired by the abbot Phra Sripariyattiwetti's 1983 book, A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives, Uncle Boonmee is like a dream that is real when you are dreaming but illogical when you wake up, a series of images, some dark, some beautiful, but most that can be experienced but not explained. It is a challenging and often impenetrable film that divides audiences into, in the director's expression, “very like” and “very don't like.'' There seems to be no middle ground. 

Boonmee (first-time actor Thanapat Saisaymar), a man dying of kidney failure on his fruit and honey farm, is surrounded by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), who has come to help out, his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and his helper, Laotian Jaai (Samud Kugasang), possibly an illegal immigrant, who regularly changes Boonmee's dialysis equipment. As he approaches his final days, Boonmee begins to see the ghosts and images from his present and past lives. His long dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears followed by his son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) who disappeared thirteen years ago and has mated with a “monkey ghost”. Appearing in non-human form, with his long hair and glowing red eyes, he resembles a hairy Sasquatch. Amusingly, someone asks him, “Why did you grow your hair so long?” 

Boonmee asks Huay how he will find her when he gets to heaven. To that she answers, “Heaven is over-rated, there's nothing there. And anyway”, she explains, “ghosts don't associate with places, they associate with people. We'll find each other.” For me, the implication is that heaven is not a place or location but the experience of enduring connection. Boonmee wonders if his illness is his karma brought on by killing too many bugs or too many communists in northeast Thailand, but Jen denies this, telling him that he did it only for the good of his country. Although the film stays away from any overt political commentary, a political element is expressed in photographs of monkey ghosts chained by soldiers and led to torture, allowing us to consider how communist prisoners suffered the same fate in real life. Weerasethakul has said that state censorship prohibits Thai filmmakers from making overtly political movies or anything considered a threat to national security.  

In a gorgeous middle sequence which may be the film's high point, an ancient princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) wearing bracelets and necklaces is carried on a covered conveyance on the shoulders of four men to a waterfall. Rejecting the love of one her soldiers (Sumit Suebsee), she is startled to see her younger face, reflected in the water, and it brings tears to her eyes. She is reassured, however, by an erotic talking catfish. "Deep down,” she says, “I know that reflection is an illusion"; the catfish/Boonmee responds, "I know that you're the same person I loved"; she answers, "That's an illusion too." As he awaits his death, Boonmee, Huay, Jen, and Tong visit a cave with white sand floors where Boonmee reveals that this was the place he was first born and that, at his genesis, he was "neither human nor animal, neither man nor woman." Following a stately Buddhist funeral, the scene shifts to an ordinary looking room where Jen and Roong (Kanokporn Thongaram) begin to add up funeral contributions when a saffron monk who looks like Tong enters and asks if he can take a shower. Filmed in 16mm as a tribute to the format of films from the director's childhood, the scene has hints of a parallel universe.  

Uncle Boonmee is a personal and heartfelt film from the director who has given us such masterpieces as Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours. It is a haunting and hypnotic experience but it can be very challenging because of the slowness of its pace and the fact that it engages the senses more than the emotions. The type of spirituality the film depicts may be vastly different from Western ideas, yet the film's notion that nothing is separate from anything else, that every living thing is part of the divine whether it is an insect, an animal, or a human being speaks to me of a world where nature has purpose and intelligence. Similarly, in the enduring relationship between Boonmee and Huay, and the picture of a dying man comforted by family and friends, the film offers an experience of the permanence of love.


Seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival

Howard Schumann

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