Monday, January 17, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is a ghost story told with the calm and patience of a prosaic tale of country living. The film concerns the final days of the titular protagonist, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an old farmer suffering from a kidney disease. He's visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and in his last days Boonmee's remote farm is haunted by ghosts of his own past, as well as visions of alternate lives both past and future. The film moves at the tranquil, languid pace of lazy afternoons with nothing to do, and this quiet grace allows the frequently outrageous and bizarre elements of the story to blend seamlessly into reality, to appear as natural as the background hum of insects or the gentle murmur of the wind.

The film is certainly awash in surreal elements, presented with that deadpan nonchalance that characterizes much of Weerasethakul's work. Boonmee is visited by both his dead wife, Jen's sister Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and their son Boongsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), the latter of whom reappears as an apeman, having long ago wandered off into the jungle to commune with the mysterious "monkey ghosts" that inhabit the dense forests surrounding Boonmee's home. Huay appears without fanfare, simply fading into existence in an empty seat while the family is eating dinner. At first she's a kind of cinematic ghost within the frame, a hovering reflection where there is no mirror, a faint photographic afterimage layered within the film stock. But as she fades in, she becomes tactile and physical, as real-looking as the non-ghost people sitting around her, and the scene loses its subtle air of unreality to become simply a prosaic family dinner again, a group of people sitting around talking and reminiscing. It's a subtle point: within the cinema, everyone is a ghost, an image, and no figure is any more "real" than any other. Weerasethakul allows the film's ghosts to be as physical, as concrete, as the living people, just as he allows past, present and future to coexist without separation.

The same slow adjustment to strangeness occurs with Boonsong arrives. The "monkey ghosts," from a distance, are haunting and creepy figures, pure black shadows with glowing red eyes set into their faces. Weerasethakul periodically inserts a shot of these creatures in the jungle, these inscrutable figures with piercing eyes, eerie ghosts or demons who never reveal more of themselves than this shadowy outline. Boonsong appears the same way, walking up the stairs towards the family, his red eyes the only visible sign of him, the rest of his body blending so totally into the darkness that the twin red orbs appear to be floating in midair, disconnected from any concrete figure. Once he steps into the light, however, his creepiness is diffused, and he's revealed as simply a man in somewhat ungainly ape makeup. As he talks with his father, describing the circumstances of his long-ago disappearance, it is both poignant and silly and strangely ordinary: the emotions of the reunion, a son revisiting his father after many years of absence, cut through the goofiness of the ape outfit.

Weerasethakul has a wry sense of humor in moments like this. The first thing Jen says, upon realizing who the apeman is, is to ask, "why did you grow your hair out?" It's a singularly strange and funny thing to say to a guy who's somehow been transformed into a talking gorilla, and it reflects just how accepted the surreal and the supernatural are in this film. Later in the dinner, when Boonmee's worker Jaai (Samud Kugasang) arrives, he looks in wonderment at the monkey and the dead woman sitting at the table, but then he breathlessly murmurs, "I feel like the strange one here." In Weerasethakul's casual presentation of the supernatural and the mythical, it's prosaic reality that begins to feel strange. And after all, Jaai is the only outsider here, the only one who's not a member of the family. His distinction from the family is ultimately more important than the separation between the dead and the living, or between the human and the once-human.

Jaai is also an outsider as a Laotian immigrant, possibly an illegal who'd entered the country without authorization. The film is set in a border region between Thailand and Laos, and towards the beginning of the film Boonmee and Jen talk about illegal immigrants. Jen evinces prejudice against the Laotian workers, saying that they're "smelly" and that they sometimes rob and kill their employers. It's the same kind of dynamic that seems to develop anywhere that poor foreign laborers enter a more affluent neighboring region for work: they're needed for the work they do, but also mistrusted and feared, thought of as inferior and filthy, looked down upon by those who rely upon them. Politics drift gently through Weerasethakul's film, never quite becoming the focus but lightly tugging at the corners of consciousness. This examination of the nature of illegal immigration is later expanded when Jen has a conversation with Jaai, in which he reveals that he is soon leaving, heading back home to marry a girl who he'd been courting from afar. He's maintained his connection to his native country, and he knows that even if Boonmee is okay to him — though it's implied that the workers aren't paid especially well — that this isn't really his home.

Jaai's lower-class position is subtly mirrored in the later interpolation of the story of a princess and her servant. This dreamlike sequence feels like a folk tale or myth subtly grafted into the film, perhaps as a visualization of one of Boonmee's past lives. The servant and the princess fall in love, and Weerasethakul gracefully captures the forbidden tenderness between them in a scene where a group of servants bear the princess' carriage through the jungle on their shoulders. The princess, encased in gossamer layers of gauzy fabric, the lower half of her face hidden beneath a veil, reaches out of her carriage to touch the hair and bicep of the closest servant, who turns to her and folds her hand into his own free hand as he continues to haul her on his shoulder. This simple moment of physical contact, stolen secretly, feels as powerful as a kiss or an embrace. Later, the aging princess doesn't believe that the servant wants her anymore now that her youthful beauty has faded, and she sends him away by the side of a small lake where she sees her younger self reflected in the water. Then, in another of Weerasethakul's bizarre touches, she's confronted by a talking catfish who praises her beauty and eventually flaps between her legs as she wades into the water, the fish bringing her to orgasm as she drifts towards a waterfall.

This whole sequence has the feel of an erotic folk tale, unreal and ghostly. The princess and her servant are both caked in blue paint that makes them glow eerily in the moonlight. Weerasethakul, as is his habit, never explicitly connects this tale to the rest of the film, but its implications are obvious. If it's a past life of Boonmee, we're meant to wonder what part he plays in this drama: is he the princess or the servant? Or even the catfish, since the film's opening scene seems to imply that one of his past lives was as a cow escaping from its owners and wandering off into the jungle. The themes of aging and loss reverberate throughout the film, as Boonmee thinks back on his life, regretting what he's lost and what he's done, lamenting his illness and weakness as compared to his youthful vibrancy. The princess, looking into the lake, sees herself as a younger woman and wishes she still looked like that — but then she pushes her lover away, accusing him of fantasizing about her younger self. She speaks of the woman in the reflection as though she was another person altogether, as though she wasn't simply an earlier image of herself, frozen in time at a particular moment. It's as though she's disconnected from the past, disassociated from her own memories. Maybe that's why photographs, mementos of the past, are so important, why at Boonmee's familial reunion with his wife and son, he pulls out photo albums to look at with them, poring over these images of particular moments of time from the past. When we look at photos, we remember ourselves in earlier times as though catching glimpses of someone else's story, some younger person we only vaguely remember being. It's as though our "past lives" are just earlier moments, earlier ages, from the same long life.

There is a political component to memory here, as well. One of Boonmee's regrets is his time spent as a soldier, violently suppressing communists for the government. He says that he believes his illness is the payback of karma for all the men he's killed. Jen shrugs off such concerns, saying that he was only serving his nation, but she does seem proud of her father, who had apparently resisted the violence to some extent. He'd been sent into the woods to hunt people, she says, but instead he hunted animals, communing with nature and avoiding the horrors of killing. The film is subtly haunted by this violent, military past, a mostly unspoken past of bloodshed and repression.

Towards the end of the film, Boonmee describes a dream or a future vision, his words accompanied by strange still images of soldiers capturing and leashing the monkey ghosts, and citizens apparently rioting angrily, throwing rocks. (At the soldiers or the apes?) Boonmee's vision describes an authoritarian future in which the past can be erased by the government, in which those who maintain a connection to the past are hunted and captured, then made to disappear. It's an obvious metaphor for the governmental whitewashing of various tragedies and atrocities: whole cultures and groups, like the Laotians, like the monkey ghosts who may represent primitive ethnicities or cultures, can be made to disappear by the inevitable onslaught of progress and modernity. That's why the film is set in a tranquil, largely untouched rural area, surrounded by dense jungles, a last bastion of connections to the past, to rural living and agrarianism. In the film's final scenes, the characters return to the city and are surrounded on every side by signs of modernity: television sets and air conditioning, rock music karaoke, neon lights that brighten not only urban restaurants but sacred temples. Weerasethakul cleverly shoots a funeral scene from three angles: first head-on, looking at the mourners, then from behind them, looking at the altar with its banners and candles, and then, jarringly, in a wide shot from the side, revealing the previously unseen gaudy tower of neon lights that fills up the side of the temple, next to the rows of mourners. This shot disrupts the somber, spiritual tone of the funeral, introducing the disjunctions of modernity, in which the cheap and the superficial rest side by side with the serious.

Weerasethakul further examines the changes of modernization in the scenes of Tong as a monk towards the end of the film. Tong seems too restless for the monk's life, too in love with modern conveniences and appliances. But such things are infiltrating the supposed calm of the monastery as well: he describes how many of the monks have stereos and computers to send e-mails, and wishes that he had such things, too. He seems thoroughly disconnected from a life of spirituality and stoicism, and one wonders what ever made him think to be a monk. It feels like Weerasethakul's subtle lament for a culture that has perhaps lost touch with such otherworldly, mystical things. The film is partly about the increasing emphasis on the worldly and the material, and in this context Weerasethakul's emphasis on reincarnation, ghosts, rural legends and romantic folk tales is a radical assertion of the resistance of these traditions against encroaching modernity.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the culmination of Weerasethakul's "Primitive" project, which also included a pair of short films dealing with similar themes of memory, nostalgia, history and loss in this particular border region of Thailand. As the capping work of this project, this feature is one of Weerasethakul's richest films, weaving together the political, the spiritual, the fantastic and the deeply personal into a mysterious, moving, often funny account of facing mortality and confronting the sometimes uncomfortable truths of history. As such, the film looks both forward into the future and back into the past, and finds death in both directions, but even so it is not a bleak or dark work. It is instead warm and beautiful, evocative and sensual, flowing with the rhythms of daily life even as it examines the extraordinary and the shocking in both the real, violent history of the world and in the magical realms of myth, art and fantasy.


DavidEhrenstein said...

There are actually far more political dimensions to the film than you mention. Joe's a highly controversial figure in Thailand as he makes films about the poor exploited farmers in the North and that country's wealth and power base is in the South. He has his enemies over a barrel, however, as his international fame makes it impossible for them to obliterate (and I mean that in every possible sense) an artist who has brought their coutnry so much international prestige.

Your remakrs about the Laotian bring up one of Joe's greatest interest -- the exploitation of the poor. A few yeaes back he visited Los Angeles where he not only screened several films but also created a video and sculpture installation on this very subject. In a large room ar REDCAT (the film and performance space in the Disney Concert Hall) he offered a loop of day laborers being trans ported on a bus on one wall, a loop of thier abandoned far on another, and a third loop of southern city vista. In between he set up a glade of trees, much like the onse seen in Uncle Boonmee.

Joe's boyfriend who plays the monk in the film (I tend to think the entire enterprise was set up so Joe could shoot him taking a shower) appeared in the installation, playing a day laborer dancing on the truck as it trundles through the landscape.

As Uncle Boonmee shows his interest in Thai legend and supersition is mixed with his love of cheapie Thai horror films -- which is where the apeman with glowing red eyes comes from. Telling too is the ghost's remark tha they haunt people rather than places. And when asked about the heereafter she says "Heaven is overrated. There's nothing going on there."

Drew McIntosh said...

Awesome piece, Ed. I really loved this one, one of my favorites from last year.

I particularly enjoy how it feels in some ways like a kind of recapitulation of themes and motifs from his previous work: the car ride with Jen and Tong towards the beginning could have been stripped right out of Blissfully Yours; the detailed tending to Boonmee's ailment recalls Syndromes and A Century; the wonderful scene you describe where Boonmee relates his vision of the future and we see the stills of the soldiers capturing the monkey ghost remind one of the beginning of Tropical Malady, with the soldiers all getting their picture taken with the dead ape they've captured. And the wonderful Asian pop songs at the beginning of Malady and end of Boonmee sound pretty similar, I wouldn't be shocked to learn that they were the same artist or band. And of course some of the actors here are even playing modified versions of their characters from previous Joe movies.

The other two shorts in the Primitive project are wonderful also. What a fascinating, important filmmaker.

Ed Howard said...

David, thanks for expanding upon the political dimensions of the film. There are definitely a lot of subtexts running through this one, including the exploitation of the poor and especially of poor immigrants who have little defense against their exploiters. A lot of it is obvious to me only in a generic way, not being more familiar with the intricacies of Thai politics, but it's certainly apparent that he's dealing with the ways in which people really live and struggle from day to day, the things they deal with and the subtle connections of these lives to larger political machinations.

Drew, interesting point about the parallels to Weerasethakul's past work. I saw an interview with him in which he claimed that the film referenced various different forms of cinema in different sequences, and the connections to his own previous work adds an additional meta layer to it all. It's such a great, rich movie, with so many different dimensions and so many different allusions packed into it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're welcome.

To us in the West it's obvious that he's "interested" in the lives of the poor. But in Thailand this has a special resonance that's almost militant in its sincerity. Joe's an incredibly sophisticated man with a pronounced taste for the "naive."

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Love your detailed analysis of it, its my film of last year, as per my blog report on it.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Michael, I loved it too! Definitely a highlight of last year.

Anonymous said...

Great, great analysis. Exactly what I've been looking for. I finally saw Uncle Boonmee last night, and was truly amazed by it. I needed some explanations, though, and now that you've cleared my mind, I love it even more.

Thanks again.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Gekko. It's definitely a great film, utterly original and delightful.