Saturday, April 16, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2011)

The grass almost literally looks greener in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's movies: of all the modern poets of the cinema, "Joe" is by far the most tactile. Though his glacially paced films may create a distance that makes even Terrence Malick or Abbas Kiarostami seem visceral, Weerasethakul is the best at crafting worlds one can nearly reach out and touch. Unlike the masterful contemporary filmmakers whose company Joe enjoys, the Thai director does not intellectualize his reveries. Shots follow characters speaking until suddenly the focus shifts onto another group, an animal or even plant life. It's as if Weerasethakul sets up his shots based on what's the most interesting element in the frame, even if that means moving away from a previous setup altogether. This gives his films a universality he shares with other seemingly esoteric and geocentric filmmakers like Kiarostami or Jia Zhangke, and his ability to mine more abstract metaphysical subjects than the others occasionally makes him stand out even against his hero Abbas.

As I still need to see a few of his films, and because I value the films I have seen so highly, I cannot say whether Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is truly Joe's finest film to date. It is, however, his most ambitious, taking the cross-dimensional split narrative of his erstwhile magnum opus, Syndromes and a Century, to further extremes. That film bifurcated its romance between pairs of country and urban doctors, but Uncle Boonmee moves across the threshold from life to death and back again.

The "story" of a Weerasethakul film is usually its least important aspect, and that's true here. But like Joe's other movies, the thin plot leads in fascinating, surreal directions. The titular Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who returns to his farm near the Laotian border to die of renal failure, the same region he's been charting with video projects and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua -- this feature is the culmination of all these works for his art project Primitive. There are no histrionics to Boonmee's inevitable death: his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), does not want to hear any talk of his mortality, but she is as resigned to Boonmee's fate as he is. A nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and caretaker, Jaai (Samud Kugasang) help the man be comfortable, but he seems to accept any pain as karma for his part in the anti-Communist purge of the Isan region in the '60s.

Complicating an old man's tranquil but slow death, however, is the sudden appearance of the ghost of his dead wife, as well as his estranged son, who shows up looking like a simian shadow with glowing red eyes and claiming to be a Monkey Ghost. Joe's framing in these reveals is fantastic: he arranges the living family all at the right side of the table, obeying the rule of thirds but creating such a huge amount of empty space in the middle and left sections that the eye is as drawn to nothingness as it is the action. Slowly, the wife, Huay, materializes in the empty chair facing the camera; she's so silent that the family doesn't notice her at first.

No one freaks out when Huay and Boonsong emerge from the forest to talk to Boonmee, nor do they even waste time on small chat -- what do you say to a ghost about the weather anyway? The old man accepts this vision and talks about hoping Huay was well wherever she was in the afterlife, while Huay's sister Jen asks if she got the items she left at the temple. Talk then moves to Boonmee's impending death. Maybe that's why the conversations all seem to concern only the important questions: the man understands he would just be wasting time by asking questions like "What is the afterlife like?" since he'll be there soon to see for himself.

Instead, Uncle Boonmee meditates on the tragedies, regrets, even absurdities of this life, using death merely as a vantage point, but not the omniscient one we tend to think it offers. The clearest idea of what lies beyond comes when Boonmee asks his wife where he might go to look for her in death. "In heaven?" he asks, unable to ask the alternative. "Heaven is overrated. There's nothing to do there," Huay responds with her disaffected flatness (her detached ennui makes for a recurring bit of physical humor). The spirits instead serve to help bring out Boonmee's memories of this life and previous ones while also calming him for his future. The guidance they offer is emotional.

Joe, the child of two doctors and no stranger to wards of the infirm and dying, looks upon his sickly characters with grace and empathy. Jen walks with a cane and an orthopedic shoe, heavily shuffling around this rural farm and clearly struggling with the rougher terrain. Unbroken shots show Jaai hooking up Boonmee's dialysis; there's something inherently funny about a long static shot, and the look of ennui on the old man's face as the young man connects tubes and sacks carries a mild humor. But that bored look also communicates a "Is this how it's really going to be?" defeatism, and Joe sympathizes with the unremarkable deaths of those who used to live more exciting, even terrible, lives. The most moving shot of the film shows Boonmee suddenly hugging Huay for comfort, not to prepare for death but out of fear that his actions as a soldier might prevent him from seeing her in the afterlife.

That mixture of the personal and political runs through the film, and Weerasethakul's corpus at large. He displays a more thorough understanding of the political turmoil that has affected economies, geographies and populations than Kiarostami, but he has the Iranian master's ability to focus on the personal reaction, to avoid polemics in the search of a greater truth. The journeys through Boonmee's past, present and future lives all contain elements of politics: even the vision he has of his beginning in a lake where a magical catfish seduces a disfigured princess contains traces of personalized politics, the rich princess mistaking intimacy with an obedient servant for love and casting aside all her wealth to the lake spirits in exchange Sexual gratification? It is unclear. A future vision shows Boonmee as a Monkey Ghost captured by younger soldiers, still photographs adding a surreal flavor to horribly familiar shots of hunting Communists in the jungle. Those monkey spirits more and more resemble the ghosts of the Communists Boonmee helped kill, so perhaps it is his karma to be captured and abused by the next generation of soldiers.

Uncle Boonmee follows the idea of Buddhist cycles of consciousness, but Joe's ruminations go beyond any one religion, and even any one plane of reality. As I argued in my review of Phantoms of Nabua, his burning of an outdoor projection screen, leading to the light of the projector casting out into the air and smoke, tore down the distinction between cinema and reality, mingling the past contained in film and the present outside the projection to find the way forward for this region, all of Thailand and the world itself.

As Boonmee contemplates his own past lives, Joe delves into the past iterations of cinema itself. The surreal incident with the catfish has airs of costume drama (mannered princess letting go to find more human fulfillment), while the present-day journey to the cave of origin where that scene took place is shot with documentary-like verité. The acting and framing throughout oscillates between Joe's freer, painterly style and the more mannered setup of theatrical acting and blocking. When Boonmee shows Boonsong and Huay old photo albums of all they missed in their absence, Boonsong recalls the interest in photography that led him to discover the Monkey Ghosts and mate with them, and flashbacks show honest-to-goodness film being developed in a dark room instead of digital files cleaned up in Photoshop.

An answer to the finality of Western conceptions of death and the permanence of the afterlife, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sets all the planes of existence on an elliptical orbit, though what metaphysical star they revolve around is anyone's guess. In his view, past, present and future are united, the past of one life informing the present of another and pointing toward the future of yet more lives and realities. If postmodernism seeks to flatten distinctions and barriers, Weerasethakul, who relies less on pastiche than nearly any other current filmmaker, may be the most thoughtful postmodernist in cinema. Or perhaps he's already looking beyond, seeking to mix his postmodernism with his classicism (if his love of the past does not extend even further back into ancient prehistory).

Despite the sequence gaps in my Weerasethakul viewing, everything I've seen so far has progressed from what came before while also incorporating all past works. Uncle Boonmee consolidates everything -- his love of cinema (and subsequent fear of the death of film stock), his mixture of space and time, his soft romances. Naturally, the results are jumbled, but in the film's conflicting grace, humor, mystery and even frustration lies something of this world and worlds beyond. The film opens with an ox breaking free of its leash and running into the forest and ends with an out-of-body experience. Both are vexing scenes seemingly divorced from everything, but in their anticlimactic mini-resolutions is the idea that everything is going to be alright, and it is best not to expect any outcome in a world where seemingly anything is possible. If you let go, I promise it all makes some kind of sense by the time you're done.


  1. Great review. I have been watching the film throughout the day today (my tolerance for crippling slow films is not my strong suit) and I had a hard time putting some things together. You review helps place some of the ideas I had while watching the film. I'm not sure it resonates with me as much as others, but I can appreciate what it has attempted.

    Why do you believe he is able to get away with shots that linger with no object in the frame? Wouldn't other directors be chastised?

  2. But I think that's just it: by not focusing on an object in the frame, he reminds us that the backdrops are not some separate entity. His trees are objects, and several shots actually ignore the people within them to highlight the seemingly meaningless decor around them (no interior shot is ever without a window, and he seems to bring out an otherworldly quality to mosquito netting). I didn't take it on faith the first time I saw a Joe film that what he was doing was worth watching, but I quickly became so absorbed by the sheer effrontery of his pacing -- he makes Antonioni look like Michael Bay -- that I studied those empty images until I realized how full they were.

    I'm certainly not saying he can't be frustrating, but I find him more of a challenge that rewards me than an exercise in tedium.