Uncle Boonmee makes Weerasethakul one of the true master artists working today.
There is a moment more than midway through Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s paean to rural northern Thailand – where the viewer may realize (“may” because this is a film of layers and subtleties) that the film is as much a meditation on cinema as it is an exploration of grief, connection and dying. It comes as the major characters enter and walk through a cave, the camera lingering on stalactites or on human faces frozen in elemental wonder at the strange natural environs. And that is when it strikes the viewer: this cave, the feeling of heightened wonder it evokes for the characters and the camera there to witness it all; Weerasethakul has teleported us back to the beginning of cinema. This is Méliès and A Trip to the Moon. A thoroughly alien setting, a sense of awe, the seamless combination of fantasy and reality, all come to life before our eyes. That is cinema, today just as it was 100 years ago and few filmmakers can capture that indelible, intrinsic magic to the same degree as Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That confirmation of pure wizardry is one reason that this 2010 effort was the director’s break-out hit, winning him a Palme d’Or and widespread name recognition.
Uncle Boonmee is the tale of the final days of the eponymous Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a tamarind farmer and beekeeper dying of kidney failure. He is accompanied by his dutiful sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and the trio share meals, go for nighttime hikes and have conversations with non-human beings, including the ghost of Boonmee’s long-dead wife and the ape/man hybrid creature that Boonmee’s long-lost son has transformed into. In other words, the film is not quite straight-forward, especially once the famed princess-having-sex-with-a-talking-catfish scene is taken into account.
Like most Weerasethakul films, but probably more so than usual, Uncle Boonmee defies both narrative and physical reality. It both is and is not a narrative, plot-driven film, as it does trace the last days of Boonmee, but elliptically and with multiple long tangents. And the whole menagerie of non-human creatures, while shocking at first, feel quite natural after only a few minutes of their being on-screen (except for that nympho catfish with vocal cords – that critter will always be weird). In other words, while Uncle Boonmee languidly meanders through scenes with all kinds of odd beings, it still feels like a natural and complete story.
On the metatextual level, Uncle Boonmee is a treatise on the relationship between truth and image, between the fidelity of our perception of the Real and the actual reality of the Real. This is a tried-and-true cinematic debate that again recalls the earliest days of the medium, when unsavvy audiences fled theatres in a panic when the screen projected a massive steam engine barreling straight at the camera/them. It is one filmmakers both great (Antonioni, especially in Blow Up, which is homaged in Uncle Boonmee) and not-so-great (the Wachowskis in The Matrix trilogy) have dealt with. There is just something about film and mixture of sound with image with motion, that prompts an exploration of the nature of perception. In a philosophy seminar, this topic would be called an ontological dilemma, but for Weerasethakul, it becomes a title that is also a pun: is Boonmee truly an uncle who can recall his past lives? Viewers will have to decide for themselves, if they care to do so.
This is because Uncle Boonmee is, ultimately, a film of small moments, where Weerasethakul admirably performs the delicate balancing act of imbuing meaning himself while also allowing viewers the space to create meaning for themselves. He is participating in an ontological experiment about Being and the Real, but viewers are free to instead enjoy the wondrous soundscape of the jungle at night, the beautiful cinematography of the moon and the bees or the ethnographically interesting shots capturing the process of harvesting tamarind. It is that generosity, shining through the incredible virtuosity in accomplishing the sound, script, image and broader meaning of the film, that makes Uncle Boonmee masterful and makes Weerasethakul one of the true master artists working today.