Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives | Film review
Joe’s Palme d’Or winner is a mysterious object at midnight.
In a secluded farmhouse, Uncle Boonmee (Saisaymar) waits to die. His doctor says he’ll be fine, but the sick man knows better. Creatures of the night beckon him. Long-dead lovers materialize out of thin air. Nocturnal apparitions emerge from the woodwork to crash family dinners. “Heaven is overrated,” one tells him. “Nothing happens there.” The real party’s in the jungle, where Boonmee’s cavernous destiny awaits.
One of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, School of the Art Institute grad Weerasethakul—or Joe, as he prefers to be called—has been, since 2002’s Blissfully Yours, a master at conflating the mythical and the mundane. His best film, 2005’s Tropical Malady, equates sexual conquest with spiritual consummation; the gentle courtship of a village boy by a wayward soldier gives way, in the film’s wild hunt of a second half, to a game of cat and mouse in the jungle. In Joe’s neck of the woods, shape-shifting spirit animals are no more peculiar than the passions that flare up between smitten strangers.
In the beguilingly weird Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, Joe searches for new mysteries of the human heart in a similarly tangled, pitch-black wilderness. Boonmee’s cast includes simian shadow-spirits with glowing red eyes, astral doppelgängers and, in the film’s wackiest diversion, a catfish performing cunnilingus. Joe approaches these ethereal entities matter-of-factly. His characters, too, seem to take each supernatural intrusion in stride. With so little time left to spend together, they’d rather not waste it gaping in disbelief.
The film’s funny-eerie highlight finds a moonlit meal disrupted by the arrival of the ghosts of Boonmee’s relatives. The uncle and his family are initially alarmed by the visitors—a rumbling undercurrent of sonic dread greets the arrival of one of them, a black-furred ape who creeps up the stairs like a bogeyman—but they quickly adjust. While the specters linger at the dinner table, Boonmee bickers with his sister (Pongpas) about what to do with his farm after he passes. “You expect me to stay here with all the ghosts and migrant workers?” she blurts out. Her offhand humor epitomizes the film’s casual approach to paranormal activity.
For Joe, life is a bottomless pit of fascination; his interest extends to the wonders of the natural world—the delectable taste of fresh honey, the splash of pale-white fish living in an underground hollow. Like Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee eventually relocates its action to the silent confines of a woodland cave. Here, Boonmee says his good-byes; the sequence has a hushed and transporting beauty. This, it would seem, is a religious picture—one with a comforting belief in a permeable line between the worlds of the living and the dead. The afterlife is not abstract here; it insinuates itself into daily life.
Operating as the director’s nearest onscreen surrogate, Kaewbuadee reprises his role as Tong from Malady. By film’s end, the country boy has shaved his head and donned a monk’s robe, but the holy life doesn’t really suit him. Why look for enlightenment in a temple when answers about life and death lurk in the foliage just beyond your property? A ghost story for those who really believe in ghosts, Uncle Boonmee devotes itself to the people of Thailand, where belief in the supernatural is prevalent. (Joe never condescends to these “superstitions.”) Really, though, this profoundly mysterious picture is a gift to anyone harboring a past life or the lingering specter of a departed friend. It’s blissfully ours.