Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has made a career out of directing movies that seem like dense visual riddles, matching poetry with mysterious cinematic designs. However, while his earlier features often felt primarily energizing as intellectual exercises rather than creative pursuits, his latest work — “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” — takes the identical approach into the delightful realm of fantasy.
The story begins with the image of an ox, the first of many animal references that deepen its mythological dimensions. Over the course of the nearly two-hour excursion, the ghost of a man shows up reincarnated as an ape, and a catfish apparently performs cunnilingus on a woman in the jungle. Those moments provide the strangest diversions, but “Uncle Boonmee” replicates that weirdness with a melding of poetic and comic forces, yielding an experience defined by sheer ingenuity.
Weerasethakul’s titular character is a middle-aged man living in the forest and dying from an illness. One evening, during a visit from his nephew, Boonmee also gets met by the ghost of his long-dead wife and missing son, that aforementioned monkey man. They discuss the sense of displacement that death brings them, marrying the strange tone to seriously lyrical observations of mortality. But Weerasethakul doesn’t take the scene any more seriously than we do: Another living person joins the table and takes in the eclectic group, concluding, “I feel like I’m the strange one here.”
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The magic of “Uncle Boonmee” is that it makes all viewers feel like the strange ones. Like Weerasethakul’s other movies, the imagery contains lushness even though the context never moves far beyond impenetrably difficult rationalizations. But just as Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century” used its full two hours to reach a sense of full-bodied purpose — time was its greatest asset — “Uncle Boonmee” lights up with marvelous imagery and invention from its very first scene. Weerasethakul deals with folklore, memory and death in a wonderfully playful manner that’s moderately accessible and cryptic at the same time. Guided by forces as otherworldly as his plot, the filmmaker turns narrative confusion into his greatest conceit.