A time to live, a time to die
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, March 25, 2011
An eerie yet serene vision of death, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest vision of his personal twilight zone: the forests of his native Thailand. This haunted non-horror film, which won the top prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is decidedly strange, but also gentle and sweet.
The premise is one that most Western movies would take as a downer: Amiable Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is succumbing to kidney failure. Preferring to live his final days in a state of nature, he retreats to the country, where he can putter with plants and bees amid a symphony of bird and insect chirps. Boonmee is a Buddhist, so he expects to be reborn, though not necessarily in human form. He remembers previous lives, in which he may have been a water buffalo, or a randy catfish.
One of the farm’s workers, a Laotian immigrant, tends to Boonmee. They’re soon joined by Boonmee’s sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). After they all sit down to dinner, two more guests arrive: Boonmee’s wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). Huay, who’s long dead, is initially transparent; Boonsong, who disappeared years ago, has mutated into a “monkey ghost,” a gorilla-like creature with LED-bright red eyes.
Sensing that the time is near, Boonmee leads the others through the forest at night, and into a womb-like cave. “I was born here,” he says, before Huay helps him toward his next birth.
In such previous films as “Tropical Malady,” the director broke the narrative in half, following the opening episode with a contrasting conclusion. “Uncle Boonmee” is less brazenly experimental, but it does end with a twist: Boonmee’s funeral returns the remaining characters to the urban Thailand of TV, cellphones and glaring artificial light. The vibe is no longer mystical, although uncanny things continue to occur.
The way the outlandish and the mundane overlap provides much of the movie’s charm. Jen has no problem eating dinner with ghosts but is suspicious of Laotian immigrants. While Boonmee may have lived past fairy-tale existences, he’s most concerned with the damage he did in this one, fighting communists as a young soldier. The spiritual realm cannot be separated from worldly concerns, and everything is potentially sacred — even the cheap gorilla suits that turn actors into “monkey ghosts.”
The director didn’t have the budget for CGI monkey ghosts, but he probably wouldn’t have wanted them, anyway. Where Hollywood fantasy flicks take their silly creatures very seriously, “Uncle Boonmee” prefers a lighter touch. Just because a movie is about life, death and transfiguration doesn’t mean it can’t have a sense of play.
Contains a sexually suggestive comic scene.