“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me”.
Like much of the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film concerned with memory in the most Proustian sense of the word. Sights and smells, tastes and sounds bring to the surface half-remembered images and sensual recollections that form the very fabric of his narratives, in which spatial and temporal parameters expand and contract, drift and pause like a leaf in the gentle stream of a dream. Whilst sharing similar thematic and spiritual concerns with his earlier works, particularly the breathtaking Tropical Malady (2004), it’s also his most cinematically self-aware picture, reflexive in its acknowledgment and reference to both his own previous output and Thai cinema from time past.
In a sense it’s his most superficially accessible film. Eschewing the formal diptychs of Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady and the fragmentary elliptical cycles of Syndromes and a Century (2006), it adopts an essentially linear approach in its telling of the final days of the eponymous character’s life, whilst retaining a somewhat episodic structure as much dictated by stylistic nuance as by narrative focus shifts.
Dying of kidney disease and surrounded by his surviving family (his sister-in-law Jen and her nephew Tong), Boonmee is visited by the ghost of his dead wife Huay and their long-lost son Boonsong, to prepare him for his journey into the afterlife. Boonsong disappeared into the jungle years earlier, returning in the form of a monkey ghost with whom he has mated. Nursed by Laotian immigrant Jaai, Boonmee describes to his guests his dreams of lives lived, both past and future, readying himself for his final trek into the jungle that surrounds them, where he can once again be re-born.
Weerasethakul doesn’t differentiate between the literal and the metaphorical, his world is one in which the physical and the metaphysical can co-exist. Spiritual journeys become physicalized and time as an earthly notion ceases to exist, day doesn’t become night, instead “the sky changes colour”, and people don’t die, rather they “disappear”. The jungle, such an integral part of Boonmee’s world, is an alien, mystical place, very different from that seen in Tropical Malady, a self-consciously day-for-night cinematic invention to which all here seek to return, whether it’s Boonmee himself, the Princess in the central section or the water buffalo in the film’s exquisite opening moments.
Reverence for the jungle, and nature in all its permutations is integral to Uncle Boonmee, just as it is throughout the rest of this director’s work. It manifests itself here in multiple forms, from Jen gently swatting bugs away from a hot lightbulb through to the child-like wonder at the sounds and sights of the jungle and its treasures, expressed through an astonishing aural soundscape. Huay tells Boonmee that “heaven is overrated” whilst Jen finds it here on earth, tasting honey straight from the hive. Man and nature are inseparable, as are the dead and the living, “ghosts don’t attach themselves to places, only to people”, so much so that Boonsong’s mating with the monkey ghost barely raises an eyebrow upon his arrival. The monkey ghost, described simply as “the ones we heard when we were young”, is perhaps representative of childhood fears of the unknown, ready as they are to usher the dying into their next life. They’re watching outside the cave in Boonmee’s final moments, and accompany them on their journey through the jungle, scaring Jen as they swing through the trees. Boonsong tells us he was unable to make his final journey north until he’d accepted the monkey ghost, something Jen is far from ready for, hence her nervousness in their presence, even if just like the jungle itself they’re a purely cinematic construct, staring at the viewer with their luminous eyes, directly through the fourth wall of the screen.
Aside from the final trek into the jungle, movement also plays an important role here, both physical and spiritual.
Boonmee - “The workers come and go. Sometimes, I envy them. They can go wherever they want. But I… I can’t go. I just stay here.”
Tong - “You’ve been here all along. Auntie Jen always says she wants to stay in one place. But she’s always on the move.
Jen - “It’s not by choice. It must be my karma from being so stubborn.”
Migration (and transmigration) are also key, there’s talk of crossing borders, again both literal and metaphorical, and safe passage (to the afterlife in Boonmee’s case) is most keenly felt in relation to Jaai and the Laotian workers on Boonmee’s tamarind farm of whom Jen is initially wary “is he legal? Aren’t you afraid of illegal immigrants? They can rob you, kill you and disappear”. Reincarnation itself, representing the ability, or freedom in death, to move between places, times and lives carries in itself subtle political undertones. Thailand’s oppressive past isn’t explicitly commented upon aside from images on a television set at the film’s very close and Boonmee commenting that his illness may be a result of bad karma, caused by “killing too many communists”, but Weerasethakul does manage to include a sly dig at his censors (he had trouble with Syndromes and a Century at home) as Boonmee complains about his swollen feet caused by his rich diet, effectively rooting him in stasis, “the doctor says I try too many things”, “so many restrictions…” Jen replies.
That’s not to say, however, that this is as far as Uncle Boonmee’s political commentary extends. It may not be explicitly discussed, but Boonmee’s re-telling of his dream of a future life as he lies dying is certainly food for thought enough. He describes a future ruled by an authority with the ability to make people disappear and plays out over still images of soldiers who’ve seemingly captured a monkey ghost :
“When the authorities found past people they shone a light at them. That light projected images of them onto a screen… When those images appeared, the past people disappeared.”
Recalling both the films of Chris Marker and the very opening of Tropical Malady (where a group of young soldiers take photographs of a dead body they stumble across), this sequence is as much a tribute to the earliest forms of cinema as an experimental narrative exercise dealing with the capacity of cinema to exert control. In fact, much of the film plays with levels of reflexivity in the cinema-going experience, reincarnating actors from his previous films here as Tong and Jen and playing with established cinematic forms, from the film-set like jungle at the end to the middle section with the princess and the catfish, a pastiche of a particular kind of fairy-tale-like Thai royal costume drama. Even the dinner table scene where the ghosts first appear is framed in televisual terms. Weerasethakul seems keen to highlight certain artificialities in keeping with the illusory nature of film watching, certain sequences are determinedly fantastical and unreal (or perhaps hyper-real), and photography and cinema is posited as a form of immortality. Boonmee shares his photographic memories with Huay and Boonsong, and Huay speaks of being preserved at the age at which she died, much as she is in both the memory of her loved ones and in the shots Boonmee took. The ghosts here are simply a literalisation of much the same thing, and perhaps the princess’ quest for youth can only be attained by giving herself entirely to the camera/the director/cinema (the catfish/the pond?) itself, the only place where an image (and youth) can achieve permanence.
Uncle Boonmee may not be an ‘easy’ film in the context of mainstream cinema, but it’s a film which pays dividends for your attention. Weerasethakul remains a unique voice in a homogenised cinematic world, one whose films are remarkable works of rare and exquisite beauty, full of incomparable imagery that’s guaranteed to haunt your dreams.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – 2010 – Thailand – 114 mins – Dir : Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives will be released on DVD and (a beautiful) Blu-Ray by New Wave Films on March 28th