When I set about, in July of 2015, to watch all the major films by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (known affectionately as “Joe”), the thought crossed my mind that I was tackling the most “foreign” films I’d yet seen. This was a purely subjective judgment, and not, as it turned out, a very well-informed one. True, I’d never seen a film from Thailand, but the cultural expression in the films wasn’t altogether new to me. Joe had, in fact, studied filmmaking in America for a time, and some of his influences are Western. Besides, one doesn’t break through on the opposite side of the globe as the most well-known and acclaimed director from one’s country by being hopelessly abstruse. I wasn’t going out on such a long limb, even leaving out the nature of cinema as a “universal language.” However, I should be clear that were I to plop a non-cinephile on the couch and turn on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, there would be no small amount of bafflement. The first time I saw the movie, I was confused by a number of things in it, even with the preparation of seeing Joe’s previous films. But he’s a director I generally like quite a bit, and after I thoroughly enjoyed his most recent film, Cemetery of Splendor, I wanted to take another look at Uncle Boonmee to see if I would get a better handle on it.
Probably the most common adjective ascribed to Joe’s work would be “languorous.” It’s a good, specific word. Like many contemplative art films, Uncle Boonmee is marked by stillness and quiet, but it’s a particularly naturalistic variety, driven by the tropical climate of the setting. The camera is even more unmoving than the characters, taking a matter-of-fact approach to the fantastical story. As the movie’s full title implies, that story touches on the subject of reincarnation. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) enters the film a dying man. Two of his family members, a nephew and a sister-in-law, visit him in his last days. While seated out on the veranda for dinner one night, they receive two unexpected guests: the apparition of Boonmee’s dead wife, and his long-lost son, transformed into a furry beast with glowing red eyes. Any perceived horror from these two shocking visitors is exquisitely downplayed with a few furrowed brows and just the slightest evidence of startling. With expert skill, Joe modulates the scene to pass from terror to awe to humor. What’s important is that the woman and the beast are family, so the thing to do is to bring out the photo albums. Conversation continues, and Boonmee suggests that his sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) should take over his farm when he’s gone. “How can you expect me to live here, with all the ghosts and migrant workers?” she replies. It’s a singular scene, to say the least.
And that’s pretty much all the plot you need to know. Later, as Boonmee feels the end approaching, he takes his family to a nearby cave where he believes the first of his many lives began. In between, the film flashes back to some of those previous existences, presumably. It’s never absolutely clear (at least not as far as I can gather, but then again, it wasn’t until yesterday that I realized the animals in this film — the water buffalo that escapes from its tether and the talking catfish that meets the aging princess by the waterfall — could both be earlier versions of Boonmee), and in any case it isn’t narratively crucial. This movie isn’t about exploring character traits through different iterations of a person. It isn’t about unlocking the man’s unique ability to remember his past selves for the benefit of a greedy or curious interlocutor. What is it about, then? At the very least, it’s an exploration of the concept of aging and dying, and the grief that comes with watching someone you love go through that. Joe takes a metaphysical approach to these easily comprehended emotional truths, so that, whatever else you might say about it, the film never becomes maudlin.
Certain moments in the film are indescribably moving. The aforementioned cave scene, with its sparkling crystals and an eldritch moon overhead, is a marvel. An earlier image is about as close to perfection as cinema has ever gotten. The wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), who seemingly can fade in and out of corporeal form, sometimes tending to her husband, is seated one morning in front of a diaphanous mosquito net and slowly starts to fade from view. Later, during the film’s extended coda (which really tripped me up on my first viewing), three people sit on the edge of a bed watching TV. Two of them get up to leave. While gathering their things in a corner of the room, they turn and see themselves still seated, still watching TV. This surreal moment is, at the risk of picking out only the most basic comparisons, like some of the brain-scratching visions of a Maya Deren or a David Lynch. It’s especially resistant to interpretation, since the film speeds to a tight-lipped conclusion soon after. The image itself, perhaps, is everything.
Beyond question, there’s important cultural context here that I haven’t quite mastered. Both Buddhism and Thai military history come into play, as well as Thai genre films and contemporary politics. On top of that, the film is actually the last part of an entire multi-media project that Joe had been working on for years, so technically, I can’t have it all sorted out. But if I say that I still don’t entirely “get” the film, those factors aren’t exactly what I’m missing. There’s an emotional connection that would transcend any cognitive lapses. I know this, because I’ve made that connection pretty easily with Cemetery of Splendor as well as with Joe’s first narrative feature, Blissfully Yours. Uncle Boonmee still presents a bigger challenge for me. Its leaps in mood and setting are harder to pull together in my mind. In a way, this is perfectly fine. I’m refining my taste more and more all the time, but it’s still definitely possible that the “accessible” films I embrace right away are less brilliant than the films that knock me off-kilter. So, here we are. My project to revisit a film so that I can remove any uncertainty about my opinion has only redoubled that uncertainty. I’ll get back to this one when I’ve lived a little more of my current life.