If people in Thailand had made movies thousands of years ago, this is probably the kind of movie they would have made. Except for a few modern conveniences like electricity and cell phones, this is a stirring tale of magical realism, set in an animistic world of spirits and transmigrating souls.
Boonmee is a rural farmer who is nearing the end of his life. His sister-in-law, Jen, comes to visit him, to see how he’s getting along. His kidney is starting to fail, but he has good help and is generally content. One evening as Boonmee, Jen and their helper, the young monk Tong, is having dinner, something happens. Slowly, a fourth figure appears at the table. When I noticed this apparition, I first assumed it was simply Jen’s reflection in some window – until I saw that there were no windows. The apparition sharpens, and to the (rather mild) shock of the dining household, it turns out to be the ghost of Boonmee’s long-dead wife, Huay; the older sister of Jen. She says she has come because she could feel that Boonmee is not well. Since these people believe in such things, they are surprisingly quick to accept what is happening. And a moment later they are joined by a “Ghost Monkey” (appearing rather like a werewolf with glowing red eyes in an excellently made costume) claiming to be Boonmee’s son, who was lost in the jungle years earlier. He explains that he had become fascinated with Ghost Monkeys, found a female one to mate with, and so had become one, and forgotten about his former life.
All these things are presented as if they are the most natural and understandable things in the world, which to rural Thai people they may indeed be. Interspersed with the description of Boonmee’s faltering health are anecdotal tales of his former lives, for instance as a catfish who, um, comforts a princess who is so ugly that she is unable to find love.
Eventually death catches up with Boonmee, and his sister-in-law is organizing his funeral. He wanted her to take over his farm and carry on the rural life, but she has become a city person, only able to think of country life as coarse and quaint. As Jen, her daughter and Tong the modern monk languish in front of the TV, the writer/director seems to be juxtaposing the richness and spirituality of rural life with the sad emptiness and sterility of modern urban life.
It is a point well taken, although it is a backward-looking and nostalgic attitude of nature romanticism that ignores the positive and progressive sides of the modern and post-modern condition. I don’t think modern life is as bleak and devoid of meaning as this director paints it, but it is certainly true that we have lost and are losing some deep connection to nature by redefining ourselves into a new and different set of cultural contexts. In my view, however, this
development is inevitable, and, as T.S. Eliot said, once this journey is over, we will somehow rediscover our origins as we enter a never-before-achieved state of enlightened self-knowledge. But that doesn’t mean that the passing of our first state as a dreaming child of a thoroughly spiritual natural environment should not be mourned, as it is in this feelingly vital screen chronicle of innocence lost.
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, and others
Country: Thailand, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Netherlands
Runtime: 113 min