A hypnotic journey into reincarnation, monkey gods and talking catfish, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee is a puzzling but award-winning controversy.
You, The Living By Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
At the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady was booed by audiences and panned by critics. And then a sea change occurred after it won the Jury Prize. So it’s perhaps no surprise Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is just as divisive – adored by some, boring others. In fact, the two films are remarkably similar; all narrative convention thrown to the wind, a preoccupation with Thai jungle mysticism and a melancholy rhythm to wrap it all up in. But beautifully photographed, Uncle Boonmee is even more of an enigmatic puzzle, which risks leaving Western audiences scratching their heads.
Suffice to say Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films don’t do all that well at the Thai box office either, which tends to favour action flicks like martial arts epic Ong-Bak or romantic comedies like Bangkok Traffic Love Story. But it’s not really surprising as Apichatpong Weerasethakul is really more of a video artist than a filmmaker, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is only the cinematic spine of his multimedia installation Project Primitive, which also includes two short films, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua. It’s a visual compendium on the brutal beauty of the Thailand’s Isan region on the Lao border, touching on government repression, memory and death. Weerasethakul has also suggested Uncle Boonmee is an ode to the death of cinema. The more astute viewer may notice the six reels’ varying cinematic styles, ranging from costume drama to documentary, but I must confess, I didn’t. Even still, Weerasethakul’s dreamy decoupage still makes an interesting lens through which to view the metamorphic mysticism of Uncle Boonmee.
It’s nigh on impossible to describe the film’s nebulous plot, and to be honest, it wouldn’t really help – Uncle Boonmee is a journey rather than a narrative. But Weerasethakul’s film was inspired by a Buddhist monk who, while meditating, could penetrate his past lives. And as such, the film is a visual wandering through Uncle Boonmee’s memories of reincarnation as he copes with kidney failure and approaching death. He’s cared for by sister-in-law Jen, nephew Tong and Lao carer Jaai, and is visited by his dead wife Huay and the monkey spirit of his long-lost son Boonsong. And as he journeys through the jungle with his loved ones to the birthplace of his first life, a minerally iridescent cave, he’s gradually led away from life and into the spirit world.
After Boonmee’s life force drains away, the film transfers to Tong’s experiences after the funeral as he leaves his monastery and visits Jen in a hotel room, showering and having dinner in a karaoke bar. Here the spiritual rumbling that permeates the film changes. No longer reminiscences of ugly princesses courting talking catfish in order to be made beautiful. Instead, it’s a spirituality anchored in Thai buddhism, as Tong dons (and undons) his monk’s saffron robes. And Buddhism’s transmigration of souls finds itself materialised in the hotel room as Tong and Jen see their divided selves sitting watching TV as they go out for dinner. It’s a simultaneous double life, a ripple in this cinematic stream of consciousness.
With its beautiful sequences of roaming bulls at dawn, jolted princesses in sedan chairs and veiled gazes through mosquito net gauze, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a kinetoscopic stream of consciousness, disparate images enveloped in one life force. Its hirsute monkey gods are both ludicrous and eerily chilling, like the Henri Rousseau painting Apes In The Orange Grove the grouped spirits resemble. Five pairs of red eyes staring. And if eyes are the window to the soul, red eyes are the gateway to the film’s consciousness – a levelling, inhuman essence, interchangeable and transmutable from one beast of burden to the next. All living creatures in Uncle Boonmee are reincarnations of the same life force, fractured embodiments of Uncle Boonmee, a nirvana of vanishing selves.
And yet all these glimmering shards of life are just plastic incarnations of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s vision. Uncle Boonmee is his stream of consciousness, his own personal fascination with the interplay of souls, memory and extinction. And there’s also something quietly triumphant about Uncle Boonmee, a vanguard for the spirit of cinema as perhaps the last Thai film to be shot on 35mm as filmmakers head digital. Its lyrical, reflective, poetic tone and Weerasethakul’s mastery of the gloaming makes it a swansong – a paean to cinema and to death itself, its sheer finality uniting all these disparate parts into a whole.
But there’s also a lot to pick at in Uncle Boonmee, his narrative vagaries frustratingly reminiscent of Tropical Malady. ‘What does it all mean?’ perhaps the least of these. Why, for example, does the camera linger so inexplicably long over Tong’s showering body? Is it spiritual cleansing, rhythmic cadencing or simply an erotic viewing for pleasure’s sake? Weerasethakul’s scopophilic vision is sometimes exclusionary, but nevertheless Uncle Boonmee is a thrilling journey into someone else’s soul. The greatest transmigration of souls perhaps, as it leaps like a monkey spirit off the screen and into the cinema.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is released in the UK on 19th November 2010