Reviewed by A. O. Scott
Last May, when a Cannes Film Festival jury headed by Tim Burton awarded the Palme d’Or to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011), there was widespread surprise and a few eruptions of outrage. The film — from the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has become a familiar presence on the festival circuit over the past decade — is unquestionably strange, at times mystifyingly oblique. Those who insist on a linear narrative or an easily identifiable set of themes may find themselves puzzled, perhaps to the point of frustration. But it is hard to see how this movie, with its contemplative mood and genial, curious spirit, could make anybody angry. On the contrary: encountered in an appropriately exploratory frame of mind, it can produce something close to bliss.
Uncle Boonmee is not a difficult film. Like its title character, a farmer and beekeeper whose home in a peaceful mountain valley is occasionally visited by ghosts and mythical creatures, the movie is friendly and patient, welcoming you into its odd and beautiful world without much fuss or ceremony. You may need a bit of time to adjust your eyes and expectations — the nighttime forest scenes, like those in Mr. Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, are shot in dim, shadowy light, and what story there is emerges slowly and in fragments — but after a while, like one of those ghosts, you will start to feel at home.
Boonmee is suffering from kidney disease, and as he goes briskly about his everyday business, accompanied by his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and the young men he has hired as caretakers, it becomes clear that he is saying goodbye. His present life is shadowed by regrets, only some of which are alluded to, like his actions during a long-ago period of political violence. One evening, as he and Jen are having dinner outdoors, they are joined by the specters of Boonmee’s long-lost son (Geerasak Kulhong), who has assumed the shape of a man-size monkey, and of Boonmee’s wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), whose appearance is more traditionally movie-ghostlike.
The living and the dead converse calmly and matter-of-factly, as if nothing especially unusual were going on, and this undramatic blending of the bizarre and the banal is one of Mr. Weerasethakul’s signatures. Though he is heir to a long tradition of cinematic surrealism, he does not traffic in shock or discomfort, or seek to upend the tyranny of conventional logic. Rather, he uses the illusion-making powers of the medium to propose, politely if also mischievously, an alternative way of seeing things.
Among those things are shadowy beasts with glowing red eyes and an amorous catfish that, in a dreamlike fairy tale within the film, seduces an unhappy princess. This scene, which may have had special appeal to Mr. Burton (whose oeuvre includes the fantastical Big Fish), is charming and a bit startling, and it provides a key to Uncle Boonmee’s cosmos.
For him, and for the movie that borrows his name, there is no real boundary between past and present, dream and reality, body and spirit. The world of nature, properly understood — and looked at from the proper angle — contains all of those disparate elements and affords them roughly equal value. Boonmee, a believer in karma, inhabits a world in which a Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of various forms of being coexists with animist beliefs in the supernatural power of particular places, objects and living things.
This vision of existence is, to modern Western eyes, both peculiar and beguiling. That it is embedded in an exploration of the natural beauty of northern Thailand is certainly a bonus. A trip that Boonmee and his friends take to a cave deep in the forest would make a captivating nature documentary in its own right, and the characters’ serene acceptance of their amazing surroundings only deepens the sense of sublimity.
But Mr. Weerasethakul is less concerned with exhibiting the exotic glories of his native country — which, after all, is not exotic to him — than with drawing out the latent mysteries of ordinary existence. He is equally at home in (which is to say equally estranged from and curious about) the shadows of the countryside and the fluorescence of modern city life. The jungle fantasia of Tropical Malady was followed by the disjointed quasicomedy of Syndromes and a Century, which turned an urban corporate landscape of office work and consumption into something like science fiction.
And in Uncle Boonmee the lushness of Boonmee’s farm gives way to a drab hotel and a garish funeral hall. Instead of ghosts in the darkness, there are flickering apparitions on a television screen. And instead of nostalgia for vanished magic, there is the recognition that magic — like the memories of the dead, and therefore the dead themselves — is always present if we know where and how to look. Mr. Weerasethakul certainly knows where to look and is generous enough to share some of what he sees.
Review courtesy of The New York Times