Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s newest metaphysical bout of gently meditative and oddly sensational magical realism is strangely wonderful. It’s a film that moves like philosophy, but contains the elements of a supernatural mystery. Weerasethakul’s films have all been wonderful at uncannily mixing the insular and ordered world of interior human communities, and the beautifully chaotic, and dream-logic of the outer Green World of nature. In his films, nature and Ovidian metamorphoses are not extraordinary events, but comfortably familiar. Faith is never a matter of faith, but has a profound effect on the movement of the world. And humanity is never far away from become part animal, part spirit, or casually astrally projecting.
But this is not a large, effect-laden fantasy. This is magical realism in the Marquez sense. We have quiet communities of humans, living in tiny cabins (in this case, out in the jungle), where they live everyday lives of slowed agrarian bliss. The title character in “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” played by Thanapat Saisaymar, raises bees and fruit, and smiles and is soft-spoken. There’s no reason to raise your voice. He lives with his sister Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and is dying of kidney failure. Their lives are marked only by the casual passage of time, and the ever-constant song of nature; insects hum, frogs crow, and the winds whisper gently through the thicket of trees that they inhabit. The lighting is low, and magic seems to occur in the near-darkness just before dawn.
It’s a bit of a shock, but kind of a natural occurrence, then, when Boonmee’s lost love appears at the dinner table one night. She is dead. She is a ghost. She doesn’t really perceive the passage of time. And yet she’s happy to reminisce. At that same dinner, Jen’s long-lost son appears as well, only he has been semi-transformed into a Monkey Ghost; he is hairy and has glowing red eyes. He explains that, while trying to capture a supernatural creature on film, he was slowly overcome by the magic of the jungle. He is now a twilight-dwelling beast who only seems to half exist in reality, the rest of him dwelling in dreams.
While the visuals are striking and gorgeous, there’s nothing noisy or spectacular about the film. Indeed, it moves at such a slow pace, many viewers may be frustrated by the lack of incident. This is not a film about its actions or its conclusions, though. This is a film that is, I think, trying to capture the true nature of meditation. You think, you muse, you contemplate, you may smirk a little at some of the quiet, small, silly foibles of life, but nothing dramatic happens to severely change the natural course of your thoughts.
“Uncle Boonmee” is sneaky in that way. It seems to change your thoughts without you realizing it. It’s so quiet, you’re not even sure you absorbed some details. You may not even, necessarily, notice the red-eyed Monkey Ghosts a few times they appear. The screen is so dark.
I mentioned the Green World before, and I feel I must clarify. In dramatic works (and Shakespeare is often cited in this regard), the bulk of the action will take place away from where the main characters are confortable. In this remote place, magic may exist, and the laws of nature become mutable. “Uncle Boonmee” works the magic of the Green World into a new meditative experience that blends the fantastic with the everyday. This is no small feat.
There is indeed a flashback in the film. Boonmee, perhaps, recalls one of his past lives. We see an ancient myth enacted where a traveling princess, rebuffed by one of her servants, is seduced by a magical catfish. The way Weerasethakul photographs this scene indicates nothing to separate it from the other action of the film. Past lives overlap current lives. The connections to your current life are but fading, dubiously-recalled memories. Time overlaps itself. All of reality becomes something of a conundrum. In a way, “Uncle Boonmee” is one of the most profoundly religious films ever made, provided you’re familiar with the tropes of Zen.
I highly recommend “Uncle Boonmee,” but I do warn the wary: this film is maddeningly oblique, and frustratingly slow. Go for the meditation. Stay for the humor. Then sit in quiet contemplation of the casual bouts of astral projecting. Weerasethakul is trying to recreate, I think, the experience of living in a world without active consciousness. It’s rare that filmmakers try to delve the mind in this way (cutesy dream films like “Inception” are off-base). If you value your dreams, see this film.