Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a strange and episodic film that takes place during the the last days of the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) dying of kidney failure on his farm in Northeast Thailand in the company of his sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and Laotian migrant workers. As Boonmee’s illness attracts “spirits and hungry animals” on the eve of his death, he is visited by the ghost of his wife Huay and his missing son Boonsong, who has taken the form of the red-eyed monkey ghosts who haunt the region’s jungle.
The real success of Boonmee is it’s ability to navigate in the margins: between life and death, material and metaphysical, past and present, and even the dismissable and the acceptable. When Boonmee says to Boonsong, who looks very much like a man in an ape suit, “I want to recognize you but I can’t” we snicker because it is indeed funny as an understatement, but we accept it because of the sincerity of the actor and director. Likewise, when we see the princess and the catfish, we might ask, “WTF!?” but it feels perfectly acceptable within the logic of the film.
The film’s title ultimately becomes the lens through which we interpret the events presented. For instance, the opening scene shows a loosed water buffalo straying into the jungle. Is this Boonmee recalling a past life as water buffalo or Weerasethakul recalling a past film, Tropical Malady, that shows the migration of a spirit out of a dead water buffalo or is it merely an introduction meant to set a tone? Or, we might assume that either the Princess or the catfish is a previous incarnation of Boonmee, but that is never confirmed.
The film presents several beautiful wide shots of the region’s landscapes including jungle and caves. The Thai locations are particularly suited for establishing dissonance between the material and the transcendental worlds, a metaphysical topography where the two worlds might overlap and interact. Upon visiting a cave that might have been home to Boonmee’s originary birth lifetimes ago, he recalls a dream of the future told in a Markeresque montage of still images that has some similarities to the Thai government’s removal of the region’s locals in the 60s and 70s.
The score and the delivery of the dialog (especially Boonsong’s) give the movie a somnolent vibe, which does make it easy to fall asleep while watching. And I might add that falling asleep to Boonmee, which I have done on several occasions, is some of the most gratifying sleep I have experienced.
Uncle Boonmee ends on a particularly perplexing challenge to our sense of singularity of time and space and simultaneity. As curious and uncanny as the end may be, considering what came before, it would only be alarming, even disappointing, if it were anything less than what it is.