“I’ll find my way back to help you”
I think there is a major cultural divide for me watching the Palme D’or winning Thai film ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ [Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives] from writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. There is such spirituality to its display of Boonmee’s (Thanapat Saisaymar) final days that I can’t begin to comprehend in my Americanism. Between watching his memories as a cow or a catfish in previous lives and the absolute believability that people can either move on towards heaven or stay as ghosts, I felt I was missing a key ingredient from fully allowing myself to invest. Even so, Boonmee is a beautiful piece of cinema, its cinematography and careful lingering through a methodical pace beg comparisons to Terrence Malick. Most of the film takes place on a farm, in the woods, or in caves, letting the audience be surrounded by nature as mortality is reconciled with, ghosts come for final goodbyes, and this old man moves on to the next chapter of his being.
Beginning with a wordless sequence of a cow tied to a tree, breaking free to roam into the forest while his family of owners build a campfire—the year of the setting unknown—we know it is Boonmee due to the initial title card speaking of remembering past lives as animals when the end is near. Much like this beast is unable to escape his eventual fate as sustenance, the man is living out his days on his farm, still going out to work it when he isn’t having his kidney drained from a low-tech dialysis facsimile. There is a beauty in the belief of reincarnation; a peace with death knowing the journey continues to a new form. Boonmee’s ability to remember his soul’s past allows him to matter-of-factly deal with his demise, ask his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) to take the farm and move out of the ‘city from hell’, and enjoy his time with those he loves, alive and dead. You see, the most stunning part of the film is a scene at dinner where Boonmee, Jen, and their nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) are visited by the man’s long gone wife and son.
Nineteen years since Huay’s (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) death, she suddenly manifests translucently in a chair. We watch her appear seconds before those at the table do, their surprised fright quickly turning to friendly conversation and memories of past days as though this sort of thing happens all the time. She knows Boonmee is not long for this world and has come to see him again, unknowing if she would after he passed, having left heaven to roam earth and be his ghost. While they talk, though, a noise is heard and all turn to see, taken aback by the dark silhouette with glowing eyes walking towards them. We have seen the creature before, static in the trees as the cow from the start is led away. Thinking it could be a reaper or death itself, the fear turns to joy when its discovered the ‘ghost monkey’ is in fact Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), Boonmee and Huay’s son who disappeared six years after her death. His ‘monkey’ form appears to be another Buddhist trope unknown in my ignorance; a race of ghosts transformed from human life.
Once Jai (Samud Kugasang) enters the odd scene, accepting of the situation like the others, the players in this tale have arrived to inhabit the frame together. A Laotian, possibly in Thailand illegally, Jai is a man Boonmee trusts with his life, a servant/assistant/nurse to help him through the pain. At first unsure of his motives, Jen warms up to the man—lost in love with a fiancé back home—thanking him for all he’s done for her brother. As a result, all are in good spirits, in turn making Boonmee able to join his loved ones on the other side, a hike through beautiful caves eventually leading him to the afterlife. It’s another scene of silence as Huay leads her widow, Jai, and Jen through the stone tunnels, the moon shining bright above them. A literal journey standing in for a spiritual one, I know there is more meaning to the setting, the characters, etc. then on the surface. I can comprehend what is happening—that his time had come—but the details, I know I’m missing something in the details.
It’s okay, though. The air of mystery surrounding obvious dual meanings only adds to the film’s appeal. Admittedly confused by the final scenes after Boonmee’s funeral—where characters seem to separate into two forms, one watching the other—I gladly go back to those moments not easily shakable. In what’s my favorite sequence, we watch a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) carried through the woods, camera angles visually filming her and her soldiers at intriguing angles, her supposed beauty eventually shown to have been replaced by age and wrinkles. There is a haze covering the clearing of waterfalls where she meets a catfish enamored by her since the first time she visited. It is Boonmee, of course, in one more past life, always a sensitive soul. His love for her and her want to be young again gives way to an unforgettable sexual exchange, an event you wouldn’t expect to be shot as beautifully sensual as it is. But that’s Uncle Boonmee for you, a series of moments you fear and are excited to experience, much like the prospect of death as explained by the characters onscreen.
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival