What to make of the dissonance within me that deplores the irrational in my real life and deeply embraces it in cinema? Perhaps I allow films to tear open a part of me that I otherwise suppress, or maybe there is something about the nature of sitting in the dark that allows me to recognize the poetry of certain fictions without feeling threatened by what my acquiescence might mean in the workings of the world. Every time I confront a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I face this dilemma; give myself over to his dream world, safe in the knowledge that by doing so, my local school board won’t suddenly be populated by people rallying for the inclusion of tiger boyfriends and monkey ghosts into the science curriculum or resist the considerable charm of the many inducements into Weerasethakul’s universe, instead using my rational mind to combat the seductive power of his narratives, scene by scene, shot by shot. Often, I find myself doing both, pushing and pulling myself away from the films like a turned on lover who can’t make up his mind, before I ultimately surrender to their gentle touch and fall head over heels into the milky reality that Weerasethakul creates. I just can’t help myself, I guess. For me, it seems, that’s what film is for.
What I found most interesting about Weerasethakul’s new film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is just how little resistance I felt compelled to offer toward the film, how enamored I became of it. The movie tells the story of Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a rural widower who suffers from a serious kidney disease. He is surrounded by his deceased wife’s sister Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). As death draws closer to Boonmee, he and his family sit down for dinner and are visited by his wife’s ghost and the ghost of his long lost son Boonsong, who has been transformed into a monkey ghost, a man-sized spirit with monkey fur and glowing red eyes who haunts the jungle surrounding Boonmee’s farm. As the spirits come and go, so too does Boonmee’s health, which leads him on a journey into the jungle; Boonmee has already confessed to his guilt for killing Communists in the old days, and his return to the primal force of the jungle makes sense as another expression of his ghostly regret, existing physically, out among the lushness of the trees and the wild unknown.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Boonmee’s journey climaxes when the family makes a hike to a cave formation, a sequence which is rendered alongside a fable about a princess with a skin disease who makes love to a talking catfish in order to heal her complexion and obtain true beauty (perhaps a suggestion of a cinematic narrative that Boonmee recalls in his dying hours). Soon after, Boonmee finally succumbs to the call of his own afterlife. His body is brought to a neon temple in the city, where Tong becomes a monk (in order to show the proper respect for his fallen uncle.) Then, rhyming with his previous film Syndromes And A Century, Weerasethakul splits the movie in two, creating simultaneous, self-aware worlds where the characters grapple with Thailand’s social upheaval in two separate narrative threads, an implication (the director has said) of the multiverse, of parallel lives existing at the same time.
Simple, right? Well, why should it be? One of the real pleasures of watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is giving yourself over to the impossible metaphysical complexity of it all and allowing yourself to reach a truly immersive state. This is a movie that fills the viewer with emotion by refusing to establish rational ground rules, instead working with an almost purely cinematic language to create a knowingly artificial experience, which allows Weerasethakul to unleash the full power of the form. The mind is flooded, pulling itself from the droning soundtrack (which seems designed specifically to induce a dream-like state in the viewer) to the dark, shadowy images (much of the film takes place in the shadows of night) to the emotional experience of the characters as they confront death and suffering, to the purposeful artificiality of the animal and ghost costumes, to the metaphorical and mythological meanings of the narrative, to the present-day cultural and political meanings, and back to one’s own self-awareness and perceptions. Uncle Boonmee creates a tangled interconnectedness within the viewer and through that complexity forges a deep connection with the viewer’s unconscious, restraining interpretation by playing the entire thing straight, without guile or a wink, with a pure sincerity that is unlike anything else in modern cinema.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Weerasethakul is a master of balancing the tone, pace and narrative in the service of an hypnotic power, but it is the sincerity of his representation of the “supernatural” through cinematic storytelling that is his true gift. In any other movie, a talking catfish that performs cunnilingus on a woman might seem perverse or ridiculous, but here, it carries a real sense of longing because, well, given everything else in the movie (and despite its lo-fi rendering…or maybe because of it), it seems possible. Weerasethakul’s style is a remedy for the overwhelming drive for realism that plagues so much of fictional filmmaking today, an anti-CGI dream world that is deeply rooted in the physical reality of his characters; there is no need to create Pandora when you have the Thai jungle, and isn’t there something more moving and real about acknowledging the artificiality of these dreams? They seem to come straight out of our own cinematic past, from a ghost appearing at the dinner table in a way that might make Georges Méliès smile, to a pack of monkey ghosts that simultaneously recall Kubrick’s opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the monsters prowling the forest in Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord Of The Rings. Who dreams in complete fantasy worlds? Aren’t our dreams truly rooted in our own lives, our own world? Instead of fixating on state-of-the-art gimmicks to convey the totality of a dream world, Weerasethakul understands the texture of our unconscious, the way it feels, and he delivers it back to us as something beautiful and mysterious, something that we are forced to take on its own terms. While some may get lost in the cultural specificity of the Thai setting, the truth lies not in the details but in the way in which Uncle Boonmee creates a new space within the viewer, a space between logic, memory and emotion; a place where ghosts can flourish.