By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/25/22 – Over the weekend the American Cinematheque screened Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, 2010), an amazing film that was winner of the Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 as well as recognized with awards at many major film festivals around the world. This is a very different kind of film than the action-packed narrative films that are the fare of Hollywood.
He has assembled his relatives in the countryside at his farm house, convinced he will die within a few days. The ghost of his wife Huay appears and offers guidance on his journey into the beyond, while his estranged son materializes in the guise of a jungle creature. Surrounded by his loved ones, Uncle Boonmee reflects on memories of his past lives, and he decides he must visit a special place before he goes.
The film, which explores themes of reincarnation, centers on the last days in the life of its title character, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar). Together with his loved ones – including the spirit his dead wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and his lost son, Boonsong (Jeerasak Julhong), who has returned in a non-human form – Boonmee explores his past lives as he contemplates the reasons for his terminal illness. The opening scene sets the tone of the film as half-way between documentary and dramatic narrative cinema. First, we see a water buffalo tied to a tree. It escapes into the jungle, only to be caught by a man and taken back to the farm. The man begins to lead it somewhere, while a silhouetted figure with red eyes watches. Before the title credits, we get a brief shot of a non-human creature in the jungle, completely covered with black hair and piercing red eyes. Later we will learn that this is the image of Monkey Ghosts, that supposedly haunt the jungles on the Thai-Laotian border near the village of Nabua in a northeast province of Thailand that abuts the Mekong River. What are we to make of the water buffalo? Most likely, it is an earlier life of the major character Uncle Boonmee. The opening page lays it out like an intertitle from a silent film: “Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.”
Next, in a documentary style common to earlier films of Weeraethakul, we are in a car with Uncle Boonmee (who was just released from a hospital), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaerwbuaadee) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) who limps due a motor scooter accident years before. Both Sakda and Jenjira have played characters in early films of the director – most significantly Syndromes and A Century (2004). In a sense, they are reincarnated in new roles in this film. The car is headed to the farm house of Uncle Boonmee in the very rural part of the Isan northeast part of Thailand, which bordered Laos along the Mekong River and has had a troubled history of its own – because it has more in common linguistically with the Khymer people of Cambodia to the south and was once part of an ancient Khmer Empire. Uncle Boonmee’s farm is near the village of Nabua in Nakhom Pahnom, near the Laos border and we soon hear Jen and Uncle Boonmee talking about Laotians across the river, who they consider to be dirty and uncivilized. Boonmee’s assistant on his farm is Jaai (Samud Kugasang), who administers dialysis treatments to him.
According to Weerasethakul, the film is primarily about “objects and people that transform or hybridize.” A central theme is the transformation and possible extinction of cinema itself. The film consists of six reels each shot in a different cinematic style. The styles include, by the words of the director, “old cinema with stiff acting and classical staging,” “documentary style,” “costume drama” and “my kind of film when you see long takes of animals and people driving.” At times, Uncle Boonmee’s goofy surreal style is shaped by Thai horror movies and the comic books Weerasethakul grew up on. On the first night at Boonmee’s farmhouse, Boonmee, Jen and Tong are eating dinner together. The ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay appears. Huay, who died over a decade prior, says that she heard Jen and Boonmee’s prayers for her, and is aware of Boonmee’s poor health. Huay says that she might just be remembering conversations in her consciousness after death. She remains a visible ghost present in parts of the rest of the film.
A hairy, red-eyed figure ascends the stairs near the dinner table, and is revealed to be Boonmee’s long-lost son Boonsong. Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), who practiced photography, had disappeared some years after Huay died. Boonsong was searching for a creature – whom he calls a “Monkey Ghost” – that he had captured in one of his photos. He says that he mated with a Monkey Ghost, causing his hair to grow longer and his pupils to dilate, and that, after meeting his mate, he forgot “the old world.” This appearance of Boonsong as a hairy Monkey Ghost of sorts seems to be out of the Thai horror tradition but Jen and Boonmee easily recognize his voice and seem quite comfortable with him joining them at the dinner table – surrealist as it might seem. Boonsong’s reference to his own past chasing non-human creatures in the jungle gives way to a remembered seen of him walking with his camera in the jungle, pursuing these Monkey Ghosts. Then, Jen recalls that her father was part of the Thai military men who went into the jungle to kill Communists who were supposed infiltrating Thailand from neighboring Laos. But, as Jen explains, her father ended up never killing any human but instead hunting animals and eventually learned how to talk to animals.
One might wish to ponder the significance of these all-too-real apparitions and some of the answer lies in the history of Nubua village and several large art installations and two short films that Weerasethakul did in 2009. During the day, on the farm and wandering through the tamarind trees and checking his beehives with Jen, Boonmee asserts that his illness is a result of karma. He claims that it was caused by his killing of communists while serving in the military, and his killing of bugs on the farm. In 2009 installation Primitive on the floor of New York’s New Museum, Weerasethakul screened a constellation of seven video pieces where he attempted to show that the spiritual is political. Much has been made of the role of Buddhist thought and animist belief in the Thai filmmaker’s endlessly regenerative corpus, in which stories are retold, characters reborn, and situations and locations transmigrated within and among movies. But in many of his recent films and videos, Weerasethakul reflects on the vicious cycle of political turmoil and violence in Thailand. In his films, familiar supernatural phenomena (ghosts, hauntings, past lives) have merged with historical phantoms, the manifestations of national traumas that have yet to be exorcised.
As part of the huge multi-platform project Primitive, he included two short films: A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua (both 2009). Weerasethakul has cited two starting points for the Primitive project: A story (discovered in a book given to him by a monk) about a man who is able to see his previous incarnations as though watching a movie, and a compulsion to investigate the obscured recent history of his home region of northeastern Thailand (which led him to the village of Nabua), where alleged Communist sympathizers were killed or driven into the jungle during a brutal military campaign that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s. Uncle Boonmee lives with the painful memory of having killed Communists while a soldier, and a final scene shows news footage of the Thai army in 2010 engaged in skirmishes. Many of the videos in Primitive are documents of the time he spent with the young men of Nabua, whose fathers and grandfathers were subject to persecution, and who themselves make up a lost generation, adrift in a politically and economically marginal region. So, there may be more to Boonsong’s non-human appearance as a Monkey Ghost and his life in the jungle than Boonmee really can articulate.
Weerasethakul spent a lot of time in Nabua when he was working on his Primitive installation. He dressed a bunch of Thai teenagers in military camouflage for An Evening Shoot, in which they take target practice, over and over, at a distant figure walking in the fields – a ritual without explanation or end. These photographs resurface in the fifth section of his film Uncle Boonmee Reflects on His Past Lives, where the young soldiers are hunting down creatures from the past, including the Monkey Ghosts in the jungle. While in Nabua, Weerasethakul enlisted local village boys in the construction of a homespun steel-and-wood spacecraft, as captured in Making of a Spaceship, one of four pieces installed by curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari in the exhibition’s central space in Milan in 2013, along with a ninety-second loop A Dedicated Machine, with the spaceship appears as a literal (though barely) flying object, levitating just above the distant treetops before sinking back to earth. Curiously enough, this spaceship shows up near the end of Weerasethakul’s latest film Memoria (2022). For more on this, see: https://www.designboom.com/art/inhabitants-of-nabua-thailand-build-a-spaceship-in-a-film-by-apichatpong-weerasethakul/
The long daytime scene with natural light on Uncle Boonmee’s farm is perhaps the most delicate part of this complex film. It has no bearing on the beyond. It is just a nuanced and slightly acerbic look at the organization of labor on Uncle Boonmee’s farm, his relations with his hired help, their legal status, their linguistic differences, and his attempt to ingratiate himself with them with some light, condescending clowning with his sister-in-law Jen.
At this point, the film Uncle Boonmee shifts into an imbedded tale of one of Uncle Boonmee’s past lives – more like a royal costume drama seen on television, complete with a princess and a prince. A princess is carried through a forest in a litter. She shows an interest in one of the litter bearers who follows her in her solitary walks to a nearby waterfall. The princess is plagued with a dreadful complexion but when she peers into the water, she sees in her reflection the face of a beautiful woman – more youthful and beautiful than her real appearance. She is kissed by one of her servants, but insists that he imagined kissing her reflection. The servant departs, and she sits by the water and weeps. She is complimented by a catfish, prompting her to wade into the water. She makes offerings of her jewelry in return for being made to look like her reflection, and then has sexual intercourse with the catfish. Beautiful but courting the surreal, the princess feels she found love after all.
The film soon returns to the present in the fifth part of the film. Here we see the waning health of Uncle Boonmee, who is in bed and assisted not by Jaai, but by his ghostly dead wife Huay, who assists him with the dialysis. He hugs her, and asks about how he might be able to find her in the afterlife. She tells him that “Heaven is overrated. There’s nothing there.” She tells him that the spirits of the deceased are not attached to locations, but to people.
The next morning, Boonmee, Huay, Jen and Tong venture out into the forest. Jen and Tong see shadowy figures running through the brush and leaping between the trees. Huay leads Boonmee, Jen and Tong into a cave. Boonmee believes that he was born in the cave, in a life that he cannot recall. He says that his eyes are open but he cannot see. Huay tells him that it takes time to adjust to the darkness. Boonmee is not sure if he was human or an animal, a man or a woman, in that past life.
Uncle Boonmee recounts a dream he had the previous night – about a future time in which authorities shine “a light” on “past people,” causing them to disappear. We see a have a series of still images showing a bunch of Thai teenagers dressed in military camouflage, hunting down a large monkey ghost, which they have captured. Boonmee seems to have befriended these men. As he recalls, he kept running away and getting captured.
While in the cave, Huay disconnects Boonmee’s dialysis tube. Then the darkness takes over and, in the morning, we realize that Boonmee is dead and Huay has disappeared. Tong leaves the cave and climbs to the top of the limestone karst to look out over the valley. Jen wakes up and understands that Boonmee is no longer alive.
Quickly, we leave the natural setting of the cave and the jungle and are transported to a Buddhist temple (perhaps in a nearby city) where the Buddhist funeral for Uncle Boonmee is underway. Jen seems to be managing the event. Then we see her nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) dressed in the saffron robes of a monk and he is sleeping restlessly under a mosquito net. He has decided to don the robes of a monk, but is not clear for how long.
Following Boonmee’s funeral, Jen sits on a bed, organizing gifts of baht (Thai currency) with her friend Roong (Kanokporn Thongaram, from the earlier film Blissfully Yours). Tong, now a monk, arrives, saying that he has been having difficulty sleeping at the temple. He asks to take a shower and changes from his robes to a T-shirt and jeans. While preparing to go out to eat with Jen, he is stunned to see a double of himself, sitting on the bed with Jen and Roong watching television. He and Jen leave for a restaurant, while he, Jen and Roong remain on the bed watching a video on the television showing Thai soldiers beating up protestors. Time is divided into two – hotel or karaoke – both reflecting Thai culture today.
The disconnection and dissonance of the final scene is intentional. In an interview, Weerasethakul explained that the cave scene harkened back to our human origins of living in caves. “The jungle for me is home when we were living in caves. We are scared of sounds. Jungle has become a scary place. We are looking at illusions – stills. Teenagers with teenagers dressed as soldiers – Uncle Boonmee talks for me.” Weerasethakul seems to want to show the traditions of his homeland in an expressly favorable and endearing light (with, however, a nudge of underlying political critique), and seems to be well aware of his role as its representative of the complexity of Thai culture.