Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Starring Thanapat Saisayamar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee

Boonmee (Saisaymar) is a man who is fairly well-off and who, by the looks of it, is faintly doomed. His kidney is not doing well; the laborious process of draining it hasn’t been unsuccessful, but it isn’t helping him in the way it will need to if he is to live much longer. He seems more or less at peace with that fact, although he worries about his karma. He tells his sister-in-law, Jen (Pongpas), that he worries about having killed communists and bugs over the course of his life; he believes that his body is failing him because of the violence he has committed. Jen is not terribly concerned about all of that. He had to kill the communists for the nation, didn’t he? And the bugs, well, those are pests. He had good intentions. Later on, one of those bug zappers will hum and scorch over her head as, presumably, several dozen little critters meet their frying end. Between Boonmee’s faithful outlook and Jen’s highly practical one, both of them seem very difficult to surprise. That turns out to be a real strength. One night, as the two of them and Jen’s nephew, Tong (Kaewbuadee) are sitting outside and finishing dinner, a woman materializes slowly in the chair next to Tong. At first she is mostly incorporeal, but after several minutes in which something even more interesting joins the family at table, she’s become solid…we think. Tong reaches his hand to get something in front of her, and her body is still visible behind his hand. Later on, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) will play a role in Boonmee’s treatment, picking up equipment and holding her husband to her. Huay died nearly two decades earlier, but she sits before her sister and her husband now, calm and taciturn.

A few minutes later, a character we have seen before makes his slow ascent up the steps onto the platform where the living and the dead have joined. Weerasethakul has an eye for this kind of monster. In our first experience with him, we are introduced by way of a cut away from a loose water buffalo and his owner to the monster. By now it’s a thoroughly well-known shot. In the deep light blues of the witching hours of the forest, a black creature stands like a shadow. It has two small red pinprick eyes which keep contact with the viewer. It does not leap or run or slaver or even make a sound. It stands perfectly still. (I was paralyzed.) As the family sits, still making conversation with the miraculously reappeared Huay, the beast comes upstairs. No one screams, which I’m sure the rest of us would have done if given the chance. He ultimately takes a seat at the table; he has the face and body of an ape, and in the light from the overhead lantern his red eyes do not glow. His name is Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong); his father recognizes his son’s voice. When we find out that Boonsong deliberately did not come home, even though his family searched for him, the fact that Boonmee does not cry out in pain or in rage is far more surprising than the fact of Boonsong’s apelike appearance.

In such an environment, it seems that nothing can be too surprising or too far-fetched. Weerasethakul patiently reveals the onerous nature of Boonmee’s treatment, Jen’s prejudice against the Lao, Tong’s good cooking, a ghost appearing at the table, a monster sitting down and speaking in a quiet, firm tone. In this forest, Boonsong says, there are spirits and monsters alike, waiting to show themselves. In short, Boonmee has chosen to die in a place full of vast possibilities, and one which reminds him of the vast possibilities of his life.

Some of those possibilities, the ones which remain to him, are prosaic. In one scene, as Jen clomps around Boonmee’s property, watching him cut down a tamarind, Boonmee shows her a surprise. Inside some small hives is local honey which manages, he says, to be both sweet and sour. “Chewy as bubblegum,” Jen pronounces it, but she also goes back for thirds and fourths of the honeycomb. Where so much of the film is in blues, greens, and harsh antiseptic white, these outdoor scenes are a warm yellow. Perhaps this is the last day of Boonmee’s life as Boonmee, and if so this is not such a terrible way to spend it. The tamarinds are not so bad, even though the worms are after them. The sun is out. His honey is delicious. His workers only tease his French a little bit, and even then it’s in good humor. He has company, even if she is merely a sister-in-law instead of a wife or son. In a film with Monkey Ghosts, a long traverse through a marvelously glimmering cave, and the only sex scene I’ve ever watched featuring a catfish, this sequence is understated in its beauty. Its context doesn’t make it seem more normal, more like real life; in truth, the fact that it can exist hours after a ghost and a monster sat down at Boonmee’s table is a testament to its own strangeness. It is linked to them; that morning, while Jen is sleeping within a gauzy, translucent mosquito net in pinks and blues, Huay watches her sleep. The room continues to brighten and, as we might expect, Huay begins to disappear. Ghosts are like stars in that way; although they are always there, the sun must drown them out.

Towards the end of the film, Boonmee, guided by Huay, decides he must leave his house. Jen and Tong are more alarmed by this than they are by anything else that has happened; Jen uses the phrase “lost his mind” once to describe his urgency. They find their way into a cave (though Huay is not necessarily there with them at all times). It’s like a womb, isn’t it, Boonmee says. In that way he is at least somewhat correct. There are little paintings within the cave, and many of us associate ancient peoples with caves, with living there first before being brave enough or strong enough to camp out where wild animals could take their shots at us. As must have been true for the earliest humans, there is no fire in the cave Boonmee dies in. Tong brings a flashlight, which gives us the barest sense of the cave’s blueprints. It mostly serves to drown out the glittering inside the cave, what would be starlight if not for the fact that it’s solid rock and not sky above. Boonmee has chosen a good place to die. It’s like a grave with its own constellations. As he dies, Boonmee rejects the idea that he is much of anything anymore – male, female, man, animal. Is this what is meant by being “born again,” by re-entering the womb and becoming formless once more? It is a mighty paradox if that’s the case.

Another paradox within the film is that of intentions, either good or bad. When Jen tells Boonmee not to worry, for his intentions were good when he was killing communists or bugs, I wondered at first if it mattered very much what his intentions were. The answer is totally unknowable. What was far stranger to me was the idea that anyone in this movie has terribly strong intentions. The activity of Uncle Boonmee is mostly reactive. A ghost pushes Boonmee to go into the cave, or an unexplainable image in a photograph pushes Boonsong away from his family, or Tong returns to a hotel room from the monastery because of boredom. No character seems intent on much of anything until they are pushed to some action, and it is that concept more than anything else which makes Uncle Boonmee feel particularly foreign. Perhaps that is the underlying reason why it’s so difficult to shock the characters in the film; they hadn’t planned not for incredible things to happen any more than they had planned for them. Jen’s statement about intentions feels forced and odd. It is the one moment in the film where a person seems to believe that s/he is in charge of a situation, or can control what happens in any way. No one else seems to live his or her life that way.

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