Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2011

You, the living ... and the dead

'Uncle Boonmee' is an endlessly mystifying, beguiling exploration of life, death, nature and the unknown

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Strand Releasing
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Screenplay: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Natthakarn Aphaiwong, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Wallapa Mongkolprasert and Sumit Suebsee
Not Rated / 1 hour, 54 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul films are enchanting to watch, but - for me, at least - daunting to actually write about. For a movie like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, after just one viewing (with many more to come), I feel beyond my capabilities as a film critic.

Maybe it's because his brand of cinematic language can't be explained, but only experienced. Although I suppose that should always be the case - or at least the goal - with any movie; words just aren't enough.

It's not that Uncle Boonmee is difficult to understand - it's much less oblique, for example, than his masterful Syndromes and a Century. It's just that almost anything I could describe concretely about the film would be beside the point. I could tell you that it features a man slowly dying of cancer, or a princess copulating underwater with a catfish, or a jungle/afterlife full of monkey spirits with glowing red eyes, or an ominous cave that seems to double symbolically as a womb. I could tell you all that, and I will have told you very little, if anything.

The film plays out like a dream, or like a recalled memory of a dream. There's a subtle majesty in the strangeness and simplicity of Weerasethakul's compositions that has the power to haunt even if we don't know exactly how to interpret what we're seeing.

What he seems to have focused on as his central premise in Uncle Boonmee is transformation, in all its forms. Characters discuss anecdotes that hint at substantial social upheaval (anecdotes that those with a better understanding of Thai history than myself may be better equipped to explain). The progression from young to old, from living to dead, from conscious to unconscious, is a constantly recurring theme. Various degrees of consciousness and perception seem to intermingle with one another.

There is something extraordinary about how Weerasethakul handles such an ultimately simple truth - that everything, from living creatures to whole societies to nature itself, is part of one, long, beautiful state of flux. At times he approaches his ideas in an almost alarmingly straightforward fashion, while at the same time retaining a profound sense of mystery and awe. This is a filmmaker who seems genuinely moved, genuinely awestruck, by the mysteries of life and perhaps beyond.

The film has been described as a metaphysical ghost story, and I guess that's as fitting a description as any. The title character, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), is approaching his death and he knows it. He is not the least bit fazed by the sudden presence of his dead son and dead wife, who appear at his dinner table one night and proceed to engage him warmly in deep and thoughtful conversation.

Weerasethakul presents their appearance without comment, as if it only makes sense that the souls of the living and the souls of the dead can and do (must?) coexist. The wife insists that spirits aren't attached to places ("Heaven is overrated," she says. "There's nothing there."), but to people. Perhaps her appearance, and that of the son, is Boonmee's final call to abandon the world of the living, to leave behind what he will and move on.

The scenes between Boonmee and his lost loved ones exemplify the way the film blends the magical with the mundane. There's something minimalistic, even classical, in the way he stages much of his action, which is accompanied by an almost documentary-like simplicity and natural beauty. And yet each scene feels so rich, so densely packed with implications - primal, existential, philosophical, supernatural, even political - that we are practically commanded to look closer.

I can't precisely explain the effect Weerasethakul's films have; they are mysteries of a unique kind - mysteries that maybe, ultimately, cannot and should not be unraveled, but only ruminated upon. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, last year's winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, reminds us of something but we're not sure what, or suggests something to us that we can't quite get a handle on, or sparks some thought inside us that we can't quite explain. And that, I suppose, is the magic of it.

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