Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film is like a surprisingly natural, free-wheeling train of thought. Watching it the second time at the filmekimi in Istanbul, I felt the line between me and the film disappear, it became a light-dance that mimics ‘the inner workings of the mind’ (as the director himself puts it), while challenging us constantly, a reel at a time.
In this post I’m going to try to share with you some of the best things I found written about the film on the web. I have nothing to say that’s too original, so this post is mainly for the unconverted: I hope to share some clues with people who don’t know what they think of the film. If you already love the film, you’re most probably a beautiful soul anyway, don’t read the rest, go do something good for the universe!
Here is what Apichatpong himself says about the film in Mark Peranson and Kong Rithdee’s Cinema Scope interview:
‘More than my other films, Uncle Boonmee is very much about cinema, that’s also why it’s personal. If you care to look, each reel of the film has a different style—acting style, lighting style, or cinematic references—but most of them reflect movies. I think that when you make a film about recollection and death, you have to consider that cinema is also dying—at least this kind of old cinema that nobody makes anymore.
I think Uncle Boonmee will be one of the last films that will be shot on film, as everything is moving to the Red or Sony or whatever, so it’s a tribute, and a lamentation, in a way, for celluloid. The first reel is really like my way of filming: you see the animal in the forest, a long take with the kidney dialysis, and the driving scene. And the second reel is very much like old cinema with stiff acting, no camera movement, and a very classical stage, like Thai TV drama, with monsters and ghosts. The third reel becomes like a documentary, shot in the exteriors on the tamarind farm—and also French, in a way, this kind of relaxing film. The fourth reel, with the princess and the catfish, is a costume drama, a Thai cinema of the past. So even though there is a continuity, the time reference always shifts… The fifth reel is the jungle, but it’s not the same jungle as Tropical Malady because it’s a cinema jungle—a day-for-night drama that we shot with a blue filter, like very old films. You put this old actor into a cinema jungle, and the cave refers to those old adventure novels or comic books. (In the scene with the ghost we also used a mirror, another allusion to the cinema of the past.) And the sixth reel, in the hotel, the time is slowed down, the time has become seemingly documentary. Again it’s like my films, with the long takes, but at the same time in the end when it splits, when you see the doubles of the two characters, Jen and Tong, I wanted to suggest the idea of time disruption, that the movie isn’t dealing with one reality, there are multiple planes…’
In other interviews, he claims that the ‘film is about love and relationships’, that it’s ‘a personal diary’, and that the whole Primitive Project is ‘about going back to the roots of things, what we have in our bodies, the primitive energy’. He also says the following about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives:
‘I wanted this to be like a children’s film or a children’s book, to retain that feeling of innocence. For me the interesting challenge was how to make a film that talks about death — this universal issue that’s been done a lot — and at the same time make it abstract enough to give the audience the freedom to use their imagination.’
From an Apichatpong interview by Kong Rithdee at Bangkok Post:
'Uncle Boonmee is a film about transformation, about objects and people that transform or hybridise. You can explain with scientific belief that nothing exists, nothing is really solid and everything is just a moving particle.’
Dennis Lim, who also did a wonderfully easy-going interview with Apichatpong at the Toronto Film Festival (which I shot and made a video out of, it's titled apichatportrait), also wrote one of the best reviews at the Artforum:
‘I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong’s objections: “Better to leave it all jumbled,” he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me as both his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies. For the receptive viewer, Apichatpong’s sensory immersions induce a state of simultaneous relaxation and watchfulness. This time, despite a few enigmatic detours, there are no midmovie reboots. The title spells out the premise, which crystallizes the sly paradox at the heart of the film. We watch a movie about a terminally ill man (Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, tended to by loved ones, including the ghost of his wife) ever alert to signs of life. A water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a disfigured princess who sees her reflection by an idyllic waterfall, the talking catfish that performs underwater cunnilingus on her, the insects whose chirps and buzzes engulf the nighttime jungle scenes: Might these be Boonmee’s past (or future) incarnations?
An otherworldly fable, Uncle Boonmee often alights on earthly sensations (the taste of raw honey, a lingering embrace) and political realities (the violent history of Thailand’s poor, rural northeast and, at a remove, the current clashes in Bangkok). Much like another high point of the festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, it’s both a radiant ghost story and a tale of cinema itself, concerned with the act of perception and the mysterious conjuring of alternate worlds. Both films are by artists who defy most existing categories. At 101, Oliveira is a man out of time or, perhaps, of multiple times. No less an outsider, equally at ease in a variety of idioms and registers, Apichatpong synthesizes the Western avant-garde tradition with Buddhist thought, animist belief, and Thai pop culture. As Uncle Boonmee confirms, his vision is above all a generous one. In the threat of extinction—a dying man, a disintegrating country, a disappearing medium—Apichatpong sees the possibility of regeneration.’
Daniel Kasman also does well summarizing the non-summarizable at MUBI:
‘The film is full of life, dead and alive, and suffuse with gentleness. Boonmee and his family greet the dead with smiles and love, and the film emits a luminescence as tactile as the milky forest chiaroscuro of its 16mm photography and as ambient as the tender embrace between Boonmee and his dead wife, the netted, soft rainbow pastels that paint the dead woman's view of her sleeping sister, and Tong’s silent willingness to follow the family into the deepest forest and emerge a changed man. The natural, unexplained and unexplainable flow of reincarnation that pulses through the film—which diverts to tell the story of a water buffalo, of a scarred princess and her catfish lover, of a magic cave of chalky silver, strange shapes and blind fish hidden in the woods, of briefly stepping away from a troubled, mournful life—calms everyone, and the film itself. The Ghost Monkeys look like frightful beasts, eyes like red bulbs as they creep and swing through the trees, but Boonmee creates a world where there may be anxiety over the unknown but there is no fear, only acceptance and care. A richness of time, a human time. Passings and returns ebb out of human life into the unexplained, into the myth and folklore, where sharing fresh honey on a sunny day is as beautiful as embracing a ghost, the dark life of the jungle, or the simple heartbreak of the final draining of Boonmee’s beleaguered kidney. It is probably as simple a film as Apichatpong, whose cinema is lovingly cryptic, can get, as if a human radiance humbly simplifies everything, from the mysteries of death and melancholy, to the origin of the world and friendship, family, and the dead gathering over a night’s dinner.’
Michael Koresky is very correct in reminding us (at Reverse Shot) the clue to Apichatpong’s art: the audiovisual sensory experience the films are offering. Acquiring this particular attentiveness is the only way you’ll enjoy the films from beginning to the end, and the only way you’ll follow the “train of thought” Uncle Boonmee is:
‘What should be mentioned first is the quiet. But when discussing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives many will undoubtedly initially gravitate towards the monkey ghosts, the talking catfish, the materializing spirits. Yet it’s the hushed beauty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that perhaps most unites them, and which helps make his latest—the surprise Palme d’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—what it is, atmospherically, temperamentally, spiritually. The natural wonder of Apichatpong’s Northern Thailand, the swaying branches and grasses of its restive jungles and fields, its crickets and birds, breezes and hums, are all-encompassing on screen, thanks to the filmmaker’s immersive, simple yet forceful sound design, itself a gentle Buddhist gesture. Watching and listening, we are united with every living thing on screen, and we become aware of our place in the cosmos. It’s what separates him from most of today’s acclaimed art-house formalists: he offers long takes, but not exclusively or even meticulously. His pace is unhurried but he’ll stop a scene if necessary; his cutting is intuitive and impulsive, rather than overdetermined, resulting in a cinema that more effectively mirrors a dream state than that of any filmmaker outside of David Lynch. His tone is solemn yet he’s not above deflating the mood with a smile, so good-natured is he. He’s political yet focused on the smallest gestures between people—or between humans and animals. The silence and the silly song, together—two chambers of the same open heart.
That we never know for sure is part of the film’s poetic miracle: the title might be misleading (we’re never told whether Uncle Boonmee can recall his past lives or not), but the possibility of soul transmigration seems to exist within every person and animal we meet, from that sprightly ox to the hairy Boonsong to the insects that bring this world to buzzing life—even those flies that Jen casually zaps with an electric swatter on her porch.
And in this tenderhearted vision, these forces never come into conflict. They merge into one joyous, mournful entity—like the harmony created by that exquisite silence and that buoyant karaoke tune.’
In the second half of the film, the film journeys into the jungle... About this Apichatpong says:
‘In terms of my intention, it was more about going back to the jungle and seeing it as a different place–a place that we feel alienated from, which is different than maybe when our ancestors encountered the jungle. But it is still our home. I always take my characters home.’
Then it journeys into a cave... Wendy Ide at Times tries to explain why that might be:
‘The film’s enchantment is at its most potent during a pilgrimage by Boonmee and his family to a cave high in the hills – the throbbing growl on the soundtrack creates a kind of aural architecture for the dying man’s gateway from this life to the next. It’s spine-tingling stuff. Directly afterwards we are returned to the mundane reality of life after Boonmee’s death – a place where prosaic funeral arrangements are discussed in featureless hotel rooms, and the ghosts have retreated to the forests. But by this time, the film’s spell has taken effect and its curious magic is evident everywhere from the saffron of a monk’s robes to the gaudy fairy lights of a low-rent karaoke bar.’
Apichatpong more or less agrees at New York Times:
‘There’s the scene in “Boonmee” where they go into a cave, which is like a womb and also like going back home, when we were in caves.’
So, if I tried to put it all together:
Uncle Boonmee is a disarming & gentle lovesong "where the past, the present and the future (and the multiple universes) blur, mingle and interact", where "nothing is solid", and "there are moving particles" everywhere, so much so that Death is Home. That’s why “gradually becoming” is the whole purpose of the movie, where "transmigration of the soul" allows a new symbiosis of all living (and dead) creatures, where fables are taken seriously as a nearly forgotten memory of past wisdoms. Film (as light projected through moving celluloid) is a metaphor for all this, and all this is a metaphor for Film.
I just love the following sentence by Kong Rithdee (at Bangkok Post) who has found a beautiful metaphor for the last film of a “conceiver” who defines editing as “a disruption of space”:
‘With your eyes wide open it's also a dream alchemy that fuses into the memory of a place where time and space fold into each other like the soft petals of an eccentric flower, or like proof of quantum physics, or _ why not? _ both.’