Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
(2011, Not Rated, 113 min)
Watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I had the distinct feeling that this is not a film for me. I had that inkling before I saw it, based on previous reviews and descriptions, and thus it took me quite a few months before I finally decided to watch it. The story and its themes exist outside of my cultural and philosophical understanding, in the jungles of Thailand, where a man nearing the end of his life is visited – quite literally – by ghosts from his past.
Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is suffering from kidney failure and receives dialysis treatments that buy him time. He is visited by his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), who has not yet accepted that he will die, but he understands the end is near and has made preparations. During dinner one night, Boonmee’s wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who passed away nineteen years earlier, materializes before their eyes. Soon thereafter his son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has been missing for thirteen years, returns in the form of a monkey ghost. Whether he is supposed to be dead or alive or somewhere in-between is not apparent to me.
These visitations do not seem to be fantasies, or metaphors, or abstractions. They seem to be quite literal, visitors from beyond the grave, who surprise their surviving loved ones but are accepted easily into their reality. I was moved by the matter-of-factness of these ghosts, who emphasize Boonmee’s mortality while also reflecting an idea of immortality; he is soon to be gone from this life, but not gone from the world. His spirit will still exist, connected to the people who love him, so while in one sense he is saying goodbye, in another he is saying hello again.
Other elements of the film are less easily digested. There is a scene involving a princess and a catfish. Is this one of Boonmee’s past lives? If so, was Boonmee the princess or the catfish? And what in heaven or on Earth could possibly be the meaning of what happens next? Later there is a series of photographs under which Boonmee narrates about a vision of the past and future colliding, but what do these photos (of soldiers capturing what looks like Bigfoot) have to do with that? At the very end of the film there is a doubling of characters whose intent is a complete mystery to me.
If you let the film wash over you, it may sweep you along in its unusual flow. If you think too much about it, you may be adrift. I alternated between those reactions throughout the film, and after it was over, I immediately visited its Wikipedia page, where writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is quoted as saying his film is primarily about “objects and people that transform or hybridise.” Transform they do. Into what, I can’t say.