Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Here is a question that has stumped more than a few: what is the meaning of life? There is, realistically, no single correct answer to that question, but whatever one’s own personal interpretation may be, the odds are that one has to fulfill that notion before death comes knocking at the door. Which begs another series of questions, chief among them: what happens once we’ve moved onto the next world? Is there even another world to pass onto at all? If yes, why should we be so fearful of death, as so many of us are whenever the topic is brought up? So many profound questions, such little time and evidence to investigate them. That’s why there are movies which dwell on the subject matter, and, it may be argued, that is why Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes movies.
In one of the most charming, curious and downright puzzling films of the last few years, director Weerasethakul presents viewers with the eventful final few days of a friendly elderly man named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisavmar), who has chosen to rest in the countryside with some family members around him as well as some decent hired folk who prepare his food and look after his physical health as best they can given the terminal illness that has befallen him. But reminiscing with family and eating lovely healthy dinners are not the only pleasantries in store for this docile man. Two familiar individuals, his son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) and his wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong),people whom he has not seen in many years, pay a visit of sorts just before his passing, although they appear under shockingly different guises. His son disappeared many years ago in the jungles of Thailand, now returning in the form of some human-ape hybrid, although characteristics of the latter dominate his physique. His wife passed away some time ago, and now revisits as a ghost. Together with Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Thong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), dear Boonmee is given time to gently expire and, with the help of some unexplained forces, recall some past lives.
If there ever was a film for which it is strongly suggested to sit back and soak in everything the director and actors are giving the viewer, without resorting to over-think things while the film evolves, this is it. In truth, ‘over thinking’ is too strong a term even. Do not think, simply inhale the quiet, the amusing, the sounds, and the sights. One reason why it would not necessarily do the viewer any favours to focus on what is happening as it is happening is that Weerasethakul's film is as odd as they come, playing by its own metaphorical, spiritual rules as it moves along. The film simultaneously shows and explains, as if showing was explaining in of itself. To know what is happening if all this sounds too confusing, one simply need to observe. Only in the rarest of instances do characters sit down and discuss the strange matters that unfold, and even then they have already come to terms with them, readily accepting without too much difficulty. One such example is when Boonmee's son Boonsong returns one night as the family is having supper. No longer a regular human being, Boonsong now looks like a costumed extra from the old Planet of the Apes films. He explains that on the day he vanished, he was attracted by a strange looking creature that roamed not far away in the jungle. In order to take a picture he tried to approach the beast, which swung from tree to tree. Upon finding the beast, they mated together, which was the first process in his physical transformation. Yes, they mated (not shown in the actual movie, mind you). By any standards, such a story would only be accepted as farce, although in Uncle Boonmee this makes sense to the humans at the dinner table. They are devoutly religious, their world is grounded in a deep belief in the after life and in spirits. They pray to God, they pray to deceased loved ones, etc. Uncle Boonmee acts, in sorts, as the cinematic representation of what the most complete version of a world filled with reincarnation and spirits would be like. Weerasethakul's cinematography enhances this experience, with some wonderfully old school visuals that bring all of this strangeness to life. Uncle Boonmee is a great looking motion picture, benefiting from some simple camera work and exquisite lighting techniques.
What surprises the viewer is how Weerasethakul's picture can be as touching as it is bizarre. This is no easy feat, considering the sorts of elements that require some balancing out. At the core of the film's humanity is Jen, portrayed by Jenjira Pongpas. She is elderly, in the same age group as Boonmee, walks with a bit of a limp, and often has the funniest lines in the movie. Her lines are not uproariously funny, but their delivery is so 'matter of fact' that that genuine quality makes her a funny character. She is the most genuine character in the film, almost taking the spotlight away from Boonmee. Director Weerasethekul also extracts some emotions via scenes that on paper would seem ludicrous, like when the family shares some photos with Huay's ghost and the ape-ghost Boonsong at the dinner table. Despite the different incarnations some of the individuals have adopted, they remain family nevertheless and family will always have those special connections. The otherworldly features of Huay and Boonsong are nearly forgotten in those precious moments, if such a thing can be believed. Above all else, the film rarely tries to become uselessly melodramatic, which in other films can work wonders, but here would have felt stunningly misguided. He films scenes with a sense of emotional honesty. There is surprise when surprise is required, but the quiet moments are more frequently those which mean a lot. The lone scene that strives for a heightened sense of emotional gravitas is when Huay caresses Boonme is on his bed. For the first time in a long, long time Boonmess is awarded the privilege of hugging his wife, even though she is really dead. As weird as it sounds, it is touching. The artifice of having ape people show up, ghosts hug and past lives relived melds itself seamlessly into a dimension that all can understand and relate to. They compliment the feelings expressed by Boonmee, Jen and Thong.
Any analysis of what Unclee Boonmee strives for thematically is an exercise on the most personal of levels. Because of the film's riddle-filled story that combines notion of the after life, death, ghosts and previous lived stories, 'good luck' is arguably the best thing to say to anyone who claims that he or she will really figure this one out. That being said, the film did speak to this movie reviewer in a specific way, and much of it had to do with its overall tonal qualities. Weerasethakul does not present any of the strange apparitions the audience meets as terrifying or freakish. Neither does he seem interested in making death an especially scary or sad thing. Of course everybody would rather live than be deceased, but all humans carry an expiration date and the most sensible thing is to simply accept and deal with that reality. Of course, the character of Boonmee, as presented in the film, benefits from witnessing what can happen to those who leave one singular lifetime (visions of a past life, the appearance of his wife's ghost). Ordinary folk in the real world are not blessed with that sort of privilege, which might explain why people fear death so much, but there is a comfort to be had in Uncle Boonmee, that comfort being the courage to face death, since it really isn't that big of a deal after all, only one further step in the journey a soul takes. Who really knows if souls do actually find other bodies to inhabit or if they can continue to exist as paranormal mass, but watching this movie's interpretation of the matter was a relaxing, calming affair.
Hopefully the enigma of Uncle Boonmee will live on as more people discover the movie. It being a Pal D'Or winner at the 2010 Cannes certainly gave it a significant boost in terms of marketing during the remainder of that year and the first half of 2011, although not so much that it became a worldwide sensation. It never could be that anyhow, not with its subject matter nor its presentation style. What will Weerasethakul come up with next?