In Thai with English Subtitles.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Sakda Kaewbuadee, Matthieu Ly, Vien Pimdee, Jenjira Pongpas, Thanapat Saisaymar
RunTime: 1 hr 54 mins
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films & Lighthouse Pictures
Official Website: http://www.LHP.com.sg/uncle
Opening Day: 27 January 2011
Suffering from acute kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee has chosen to spend his final days surrounded by his loved ones in the countryside.
Surprisingly, the ghost of his deceased wife appears to care for him, and his long lost son returns home in a non-human
form. Contemplating the reasons for his illness, Boonmee treks through the jungle with his family to a mysterious hilltop cave -- the
birthplace of his first life...
In the 2010 Palme d'Or winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has elevated himself into a true visionary of the medium. His oeuvre culminating here in what must be called his magnum opus. Twining politics and intellectualism together by holding his native land close to his heart, he explores history, memories and cinema itself as he treks deep into the humid northern jungles of Thailand, where decades back, citizens were forced to rise up against the invading Communist forces -- a site that holds tremendous pangs of death, guilt and sorrow.
Weerasethakul's follow-up to 2006's "Syndromes and a Century" follows the final days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an ailing old bee farmer, who returns to his countryside abode in the north-eastern jungles with his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and a male caretaker, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Weerasethakul attributes Boonmee's ailment -- kidney failure -- with an autobiographical nod to details of his father's own passing. The narrative structure stands at its most absurd but also at its sturdiest when Boonmee's state of mind and body brings forth the ghosts of his demised family members: his lost son Boonsong, who is now part of the monkey spirits residing in the jungle and has transformed into a striking hirsute crimson-eyed ape-man; and his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who appears at the dinner table in a remarkable scene where the veil between the living and the dead come down in the gentlest way possible.
The main scope is limited to these characters, as we observe them in moments of gilded reticence as they navigate through this time of great personal revolutions, food and final thoughts are divulged, until the deep wisdom of the film and filmmaker bubbles up to the fore. Deeply meditative and gentle, it brings us on a journey without tugging us along to show us one point after another; its mien remains as organic and serene to the nature of the filmmaker and its characters' own journey. An intensely personal film, Weerasethakul has stated that the act of expiring from our physical plane is a constant in our existence that he was driven to explore through his inquiry into the "transmigration of souls".
Ostensibly a film about transition, transmutation and the ontology of our evolution -- who we once were, who we are now and who or what we will become -- Weerasethakul pulls together ancient mysticism and visual cues to form an amorphous narrative that speaks about existence of the living earth and its relationship within and of itself; and how environments shape its denizens as individuals. The film contemplates our cosmic existence and attempts as serenely as possible to reassure us that everything is in order, that it all makes sense and that we are where we were meant to be. Reconciling his belief in the spirituality infused into nature and its relationship with the human experience, his belief in the idea of animism captivates Weerasethakul who regards the reincarnation of the soul and spirit into different forms; life never ends and death feeds into the next plane -- the renascence of energy and spirit. By conflating the spiritual and temporal planes with the corporeal, Weerasethakul opens up the possibility of worlds beyond our purview and knowing -- a transcendence beyond an established, ephemeral identity.
The song ends but the melody continues to linger -- the easy friction between the film's human and spiritual realms, proffered by the use of magic-realism, is at once supremely stirring as it is assuredly calming. In an excursion by Boonmee into one of his past lives, a particularly resplendent vignette of an aging princess yearning to be young once again who offers up her physical self to a talking catfish who promises her the beauty she once possessed, the beauty she glimpsed at in the reflection of the lake -- another past life simmering below the surface of what is readily apparent. Entrenched with the otherworldliness of a ghostly folk tale from Weerasethakul's own youth and fanciful and erotically charged as Weerasethakul's own recent films, it points towards the filmmaker's syncretism of his own fractures memories and refined aesthetics.
There is a sense that Weerasethakul set out to make a film about his home and the vanishing spaces that his mind once occupied but along the way, stumbled upon the synthetic truth of cinema -- the film transforming into an earnest ode to the forgotten national cinema of his youth. He has described it as a way of preserving the memory -- the fabric of that point in the nation's cultural landscape -- through a hazy melange of related myths, idealised imagery and the shared experiences. He uses traditional techniques to create something new and revolutionary, eliciting a wonderful sense of exploring and pushing the boundaries of the medium by exploring the metaphysical through cinema and artistic fervour. By invoking the power of the screen and its abilities to meld its spatial and temporal realities with our reality beyond the projection, Weerasethakul observes the medium's propensity to not just reflect but alter history and the revision of certain truths.
The idea of keeping a record of the truth as well as the illusions remain a key point with Weerasethakul. Whether it is at the dinner table or when Boonmee recalls his days as a soldier against the Communists, photographs play a large part of Weerasethakul's ode to permanence and the sense of past lives lived but never forgotten. Time is evoked as a Moebius strip where the past, present and future are in concurrent unity when members of his lost family turn up to relive the past or when Boonmee comments on the state of how things were before describing a future existence that begins to look remarkably like a present-day portrait of oppression in the volatile political maladies plaguing Thailand. In a clever allusion to the political forces that attempted to repel his earlier works and who continue to keep a watchful eye over him as Thailand's most reputable and international film figure, Weerasethakul slyly alludes to political components inherent in his work -- a monk who finds ataraxic comfort in modernity rather than in the austerity of his robes or monkey spirits being led to torture by armed soldiers.
Touching on the dark history of the Nabua region it is set in and Boonmee recollecting his own role in the mutual slaughter of the Communists to Jen by invoking karma in considering his current illness, that he somehow deserves his fate. Jen responds that she was proud for having her father for serving the nation, yet resisted the violence by going into the jungle and hunting animals as well as communicating with them. This symbiosis of regret and avoidance signifying the suppression of violence as a natural impulse of humanity serves great purpose in looking through Weerasethakul's perspective of our natural internal states.
Weerasethakul was first inspired by the abbot near his house who published a book in 1983 called "A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives" who related that the old man in the story meditated until he started to envision his past lives playing behind his eyelids like a film. Cinema as the dreamscapes of our lives would be Weerasethakul's driving force as this film becomes a resonant fever dream redolent of love, acceptance, illusion and other kaleidoscopic themes. He has made a humble but deeply felt film about the vagaries of our soul's migration between realms but what emerges is a film that envisions in the cosmic canvas and the divinity inherent in nature and being.
(Remarkable and beguiling meditation on life, art and the soul)
Review by Justin Deimen