Karma’s a bitch (to comprehend) in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s strange, pensive drama.
“How can you expect me to live here? With all the ghosts and migrant workers?”
Often, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get when I put a new film in, even if I haven’t done much initial research into it. Directors and actors, coupled with film titles and genre, will normally do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to guessing what any piece of media is about. I was intrigued to say the least when I heard of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 film. I knew it had been featured at Cannes, and was part of a larger multimedia art piece, but otherwise was completely in the dark. All I knew was that there was a guy called Boonmee, and he’d likely be spending the movie remembering all of his previous reincarnations.
Well, I wasn’t wrong about the first bit. There is a guy called Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is suffering from kidney failure, and is being looked after by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and assistant Jaai (Samud Kugasang). At dinner one day, the ghost of his wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears, having answered Jen’s prayers. Almost immediately afterwards, they are joined by his long-lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhon) who has, since his disappearance, become a monkey spirit after deciding that was the best life choice for himself. He’s that shadowy glowing-eyes thing that’s in all the marketing. In the light he’s … let’s say somewhat less threatening.
So, what’s the movie about? Good question. Weerasethakul himself doesn’t expect anyone to fully get it, saying that while he had his own interpretation of the film “sometimes that spoils the audience’s imagination”. And he’s right. Uncle Boonmee is a less a film in the traditional sense, and more a piece of abstract art. There are plenty of elements that define it in certain respects: death, memory, regret, birth and spiritualism, but at the same time it contains many (though some may cynically say too many) elements that allow you to define its meaning for yourself.
If all that sounds pretentious for you, the idea of open cinema shouldn’t come off as particularly alien to you. Uncle Boonmee is no one’s first Asian film, so anyone putting this in has probably already seen A Long Day’s Journey into Night or Gozu. It’s a fantasy, certainly, but not the sort I might have been expecting, especially from the title. The best comparison I can come up with is with Why Has Bodhi-Dharma left for the East?, which is also very enigmatic. But while that movie explored faith and the journeys of the monks at various stages in their priesthood, Uncle Boonmee is a much more personal story that aims to speak to the audience directly, letting them define it how they choose.
The movie purposefully blurs the line between real and imaginary, past and present, and – more importantly – the living and the dead. Boonmee seems to be toeing that line throughout the entire thing, and he’s been looking back so much it’s no surprise he seems completely indifferent that his wife is a ghost and his son is a weird monkey man. Accepting it as something akin to an extended dream sequence that walks the line between reality and fantasy helps put the film in a clearer, more digestible context. You’ll not get from this what the director wants, but what you choose to see within the confines of Weerasethakul’s narrative.
Because the secret to Uncle Boonmee is that he is as confused as he is confusing. There isn’t a single shot that ever directly mentions his titular past lives. Sure, we can connect the dots that perhaps the unconnected scenes are of those, but it’s never explicitly stated. And even with these assumptions – which characters in the scenes was he meant to be? Boonmee himself doesn’t even seem to know. In one particularly telling scene – the only one where we get any real backstory – he reflects on his life, and wonders what he could have done for karma to have repaid him with a failing kidney. He comes to the conclusion that it was all those communists he killed during the Insurgency … or possibly all of the bugs he’s killed while as a farmer.
I honestly wouldn’t know whether it would be better to go into Uncle Boonmee blind or not. But I suppose if you’re reading this, you’ve either already seen it or aren’t all that bothered about being told what anything’s about. It’s less a film and more an experience: something you let wash over you, like a wave. No, better would be to think of it as a night sky. Occasionally you’ll spot a constellation, or recognise a planet. But you don’t need a map to enjoy the beauty, and that’s the same here. It’s not for everyone – I certainly don’t think I appreciated it as much as others – but for those interested, it’s worth a viewing, or even two if you’re really bent on figuring it out.
Verdict: Equally ponderous, slow and baffling, Uncle Boonmee isn’t traditional cinema but it’s a fascinating meditation on life, death and excellent sex with a catfish.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Sex: Well, see above.
Long, lingering shots: 10/10
Gorilla suits: One more than I imagined I’d see
Boonsong: Why did you grow your hair so long?
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Also known as: ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Phra Sripariyattiweti (novel)
Thanapat Saisaymar – Uncle Boonmee
Natthakarn Aphaiwong – Huay
Jeerasak Kulhong – Boonsong
Jenjira Pongpas – Jen
Sakda Kaewbuadee – Tong
Kanokporn Thongaram – Roong
Samud Kugasang – Jaai
Wallapa Mongkolprasert – the princess
Sumit Suebsee – the soldier
Vien Pimdee – the farmer