To champion a film as a work of art is an increasingly rare pleasure, but no other reaction seems appropriate in response to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterpiece UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. Appropriately, the film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, yet this official Thai entry for the Academy Awards was left off the list of 2011 Best Foreign Film nominees. To my eye, this is a tragedy – the sum of the film’s parts are, at times, hauntingly tense, intellectually evolved, aesthetically remarkable, and contrary to popular opinion, cohesive.
Generous and simple bee-farmer Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, remarkable) is dying. His kidney is failing; neither he nor his illegal immigrant nurse Jaai (Samud Kugasang) can do anything about it, and Boonmee knows better than to fight karma: “I killed too many communists”, he explains. In the days leading up to his death, Boonmee revisits the lives he may have inhabited before this current one, most of which were in the bodies of animals. His visions are accompanied by two reunions to dear people he lost: his wife, Huay (Aphaiwonk, so powerful with little screen time), and his son, Boonsong (Kulhong).
Weerasethakul works here to create something that is one part science fiction, one part epic poem, one part tender drama, and one part lucid dream. Germane to this multiplicity is the collaboration between Weerasethakul and his cinematographers, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES is almost completely captured in still shots, each one appearing to be the work of a great Impressionist obsessed with lushness, complementary colors, and objects bathed in shade.
An ongoing motif is the shrouding of actors behind softly colored nets for keeping out bugs. Never has the concealment of characters been so exquisite as in these separate shots, sometimes bathing the nets in sunlight or making the subject nearly imperceptible. Light is manipulated here subtly and expertly, often wringing fluidity from the lack of movement in shots. Naturally, Boonmee himself is never behind a net: he braves buzzing bees, mosquitoes, and gnats as if to say, “What’s the use anymore? I’ve honey to harvest.”
This is truly such a resplendent, creative, intense film. I find that I am skeptical of any sort of religious or spiritual subplots, but faith and spirituality take UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES to another dimension. In many ways, that spirituality appears completely foreign. It allows Boonmee to interact casually with ghosts, living caves, Ape-people, and animals. It gives Boonmee and his family the strength to watch him dissolve before their eyes, a particularly rare gift.
Saisaymar has the difficult task of portraying Boonmee as a man whose death is not necessarily a tragedy; his steady, powerful delivery gives us the insight to know he feels a little fear, a little joy, a little obligation, and so much more.
Although I realize it is clear how much I admire this film, I do not think a critique of it could be comprehensive without mentioning its most outrageous scene. One of Boonmee’s visions includes his life as a catfish (or perhaps a friend?), in which the fish subsequently encounters and pleasures an aging princess. It’s, um, a bit peculiar. But do not falter – in context, it is simply a segment of a magnificent whole.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010, U.S. release 2011). Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Inspired by: A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives by Phra Sripariyattiweti
- Boonmee – Thanapat Saisaymar
- Jen – Jenjira Pongpas
- Tong – Sakda Kaewbuadee
- Huay – Natthakarn Aphaiwonk
- Boonsong – Geerasak Kulhong
- Roong – Kanokporn Thogaram