Dying as a gathering of spirits
The 40-year-old Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who studied filmmaking in Chicago, is more and more celebrated in the festival circuit. His latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, received the Golden Palm, the top honor, at the Cannes Festival this year. Shot in the environs of the director’s hometown of Khon Kaen in Thailand’s rice-growing and poor northeastern plateau, Uncle Boonmee is a strange film that slides back and forth between present and past time and between dreamlike sequences involving visits from the dead and everyday silliness like a truant young Buddhist monk who says “Let’s go to the Seven Eleven” or a dead son who comes back in the form of a wooly critter with red eyes that glow in the dark. Spiritualism, reincarnation, out-of-body experiences, visits from the dead, even sex with a fish come and go with a quality of dreamlike abandon that entrances those who surrender themselves to the director’s vision — and makes rational types go into total reject mode.
In one sequence Weerasethakul says is a homage to old Thai films a princess carried through the forest on a litter draped in diaphanous curtains walks into a stream beneath a waterfall casting off jewelry and clothing to be sexually possessed by a jumping (and hitherto talking) catfish that throbs between her legs.
Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a character the director has used more than once. This time he is suffering from kidney failure, is obviously in need of dialysis treatments, and has left a hospital and come back to the family farm to live out his last days among relatives and caretakers, including his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). Conversation is desultory, concerning Boonmee’s need for care, a Laotian male nurse, and other topics. At a long dinner table sequence the phantom relatives begin to appear: Boonmee expects to depart this world, and they apparently come to see him off. First is his late, much-beloved, wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) in ectoplasmic form, a grayish image. Then comes his disappeared son, whom we’ve already seen as red glowing eyes in the forest. He’s a furry “monkey ghost,” a life-sized wooly mammoth. Everyone present sees these visitors. There’s a contrast between the everyday chatty flavor of the dialogue and the supernatural, borderline horrific nature of the visitations. No one screams or shouts. Conversation is deadpan. This somehow works to create a surreal atmosphere in which anything may be possible, though to unsympathetic eyes the result may just feel peculiar and silly, or as one IMDb contributor said, “bizarre and little more.” That viewer complained of losing two hours out of his life. Maybe so. But they may be two hours worth giving, because what Weerasethakul provides isn’t something is best understood by description and analysis but rather must simply be experienced — and in that it is distinctively cinematic.
The director’s two previous films, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, were both divided into two parts with the second acting as a kind of commentary on the first. This just has sequences that move jerkily forward in chronological progression, sort of. How they connect isn’t always wholly clear, particularly not in the case of the old Thai movie homage. Apart from the dinner table and the princess-and-the-catfish sequence there is a lengthy, later, climactic one, accompanied with an ominous throbbing sound, in which Uncle Boonmee and others explore a cave, their flashlights darting over its odd formations to create a succession of naturally spooky and mysterious images. This leads up to Uncle Boonmee’s death. Somewhat anticlimactic is a closing episode of a funeral ceremony in a temple with flashing neon lights and female relatives in what may be a hotel room sorting funeral cash gifts and receiving the young monk, who sheds his robes, showers, and wants to go out and eat. The food run happens out-of-body. Uncle Boonmee also makes stunning use of suddenly introduced stills, some of them showing young men in camouflage-cloth fatigues gathered around the “monkey ghost” as if for a snapshot of comrades on an outing.
The world of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or as some non-Thais call him, “Joe”) seems largely not only alien and strange but also fey and self-indulgent, but nonetheless you have to grant that the director has natural cinematic gifts and his work is sui generis. His sense of composition, image and sound is very distinctive. Working with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, he provides many haunting images, especially in night photography. The sound here is a feast of powerful and rapid contrasts, between a chattering jungle and silence, a rippling waterfall and a saccharine Thai pop song. Somehow with rather limited means he creates effects that are rich and strange. This is not surprising. People can be spooked or scared or mesmerized better with limited means than the elaborate CGI of films like Inception. The costliest studio gimmicks merely call attention to themselves; the simple, cheap, but inventive ones focus on what the filmmaker wants to convey. This is why The Blair Witch Project was such a success. “Joe” is at heart a Blair Witch Project kind of guy. His weirdness is all the more weird because its framework is matter-of-fact, its means simple and DIY.
Weerasethakul’s style appeals to a host of currently prevailing festival tastes. Glacially slow scenes shot with a stationary camera mostly with long and medium shots are much in vogue. So are fictions that are barely distinguishable from documentary. The more exotic the world thus evoked the better. And if the material provided is utterly puzzling, not much more is required. Especially when the gift for melding image and sound is personal and strong. Then we get a result that is not adaptable to mainstream general box office tastes. But what are festivals for if not to present films tailored to a very special audience, quite clearly distinct from hoi polloi?
Seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, September 2010. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. There is also a 17-minute opening pendant film (like the one for Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited) called Letter to Uncle Boonme. The longer film is loosely based on a book by a Thai Buddhist monk. It is having some European theatrical releases. Also shown at Toronto, and the London and other festivals will show it. An article in the NY Times by Thomas Fuller, “Laurels at Cannes and Battles at Home,” fills out the picture of the film’s cultural context and the director’s uneasy relationship with the mainstream Thai audience. Also presented at the London and many other film festivals.
Uncle Boonmee will be Thailand’s Official Selection for Best Foreign Language Film for the 84th Annual Academy Awards. Opens in New York on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 at the Film Forum.
DIRECTOR: APICHATPONG WEERSATHAKUL
WRITER: APICHATPONG WEERSATHAKUL
CAST: SAKDA KAEWBUADEE, JENJIRA PONGPAS, THANAPAT SAISAYMAR