Last year, Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, won the Palme D’Or with ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,’ his fifth feature film and his masterpiece. Yes, ‘masterpiece’ – a word over-employed by critics in search of definitive judgements and grand statements, but don’t be intimidated – this ‘masterpiece’ is as warm and approachable as they come. An ecstatic consummation of the director’s work to date.
Apichatpong is fully at ease with his milieu; his themes of memory and myth worn lightly, examined deeply. Gone are the oblique structural conceits and ellipses of ‘Tropical Malady’ and ‘Syndromes And A Century’, replaced by a relaxed, absorbing narrative flow that carries twists and diversions and surprises without interruption.
Suffering from chronic kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee has retreated to his farm near the border with Laos to prepare, we assume, for death. His sister-in-law, Jen, and family friend, Tong, come to visit. They drink tea, sample honey, and chat. After dinner, as if drawn by the lights on the veranda, other beings arrive: the ghost of his dead wife, Huay – whose quiet materialisation in a seat at the table is one of the most delicately-handled spectral entrances in cinema – and his lost son, now transformed into a ‘ghost monkey’, a kind of animal-human crossbreed, a lost soul, with neon-red eyes. Huay has come to minister to her ailing husband and for a while takes over nursing duties, but the following night, she leads Boonmee, Jen, and Tong on a journey through the jungle to a womb-like cave network, the place in which, Boonmee declares, his existence began.
This is a coming to terms with death, but not as we would understand it in the West. Apichatpong believes in reincarnation, the transmigration of souls: for him, the membrane separating living and dead, animal and human, is porous. The spirit world does not inspire fear in his characters because this other world has not been rejected. Boonmee, in particular, is aware that he once was part of it and will be part of it again. His son tells how he became fascinated by it, fell in love with it, and was eventually absorbed by it.
The narrative moves easily between sensuous experiences, reminiscences, flashbacks of past lives. This is what cinema was meant to do and where the medium corresponds so well with Apichatpong’s benign Buddhist metaphysics: time is a continuum, the present contains the past, and also the future. Towards the end, the film unexpectedly changes up a gear, as snapshots of military manoeuvres accompany Boonmee’s recollection of a disturbing dream of the future which is arguably a reverberation of concerns with the present Thai regime, and yet also a reflection of the past and the character’s guilt, or bad karma, for having killed – communists – while serving that same regime. In what is perhaps the only moment of conflict in the film, Boonmee rejects his sister-in-law’s defence of his actions as ‘doing his duty’. A whisper of politics in a country where it might be better not to raise your voice.
Apichatpong has described cinema as a means of transportation. His films take both audience and characters on a journey, often into the jungle, the primeval forest, where they are freed of society’s pressures and restrictions. Uncle Boonmee is his masterpiece in this sense: it is his most accomplished vehicle. In the atmospheric opening sequence, as the light fades and the sound of the cicadas envelopes us, a water buffalo gets the urge to slip its reins; while the tribesmen gather at the fire, the buffalo makes for the trees and though the buffalo is eventually retrieved, we are left deep in the forest, a mysterious primate (a ghost monkey) staring back at us. This is rich, enigmatic, stimulating and – yes – escapist, truly escapist cinema.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is currently on release in US cinemas (I believe). It will be released on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK on March 28th.