Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was born in Thailand but his formative film education came about in the Windy City. He earned his MFA in experimental film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has won a number of major awards, including the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The film has a run in Chicago beginning on Friday. Eight Forty-Eight asked Jonathan Miller to take a closer look at the film.
Boonmee, a farmer in rural Thailand, faces death. His kidneys are failing. His sister-in-law Jen comes to spend time with him. She is accompanied by Tong, a young man who can help care for Boonmee.
Boonmee’s proximity to death draws the world of spirits closer. The night Jen arrives, Boonmee’s wife, Huay, appears at the dinner table. She has been dead for 19 years. Then Boonmee’s lost son, Boonsong, emerges from the shadows of the night jungle as a monkey ghost. Boonsong explains that he became fascinated by an image of a monkey ghost that showed up in one of his photographs. He began to stalk them, and eventually found one to be his wife.
The monkey ghosts stare at the human world from behind the dense jungle foliage, laser bright red eyes surrounded by long dense black fur. Weerasthakul’s finds the source for these striking creatures in popular Thai films he watched when he was young. They are at once familiar kitschy and unearthly profound.
The up-country landscape is lush, eerie and brimming with spirits, alive and dead. There’s a quasi-animistic quality to the world that Weerasthakul depicts — the wheel of karma can be felt spinning in every action. Killing mosquitos with an electronic zapper leads to profound consequences. Boonmee invites Jen to taste the honey right from one of the hives on his bee farm. The honey, with flavors of tamarind and corn, is bitter and sweet, the distilled essence of life.
Boonmee confesses a belief that his illness is the result of his karmic debt. He is burdened by deaths that he has caused, from insects to humans. His thoughts on these actions point to a subtle political subtext. Part of the history of the area where Weerasthakul sets the film involves clashes between the government and farmers turned communists.
Appearances in this film are deceptive — the world of the living and the world of the dead, dreams and the future, all interpenetrate. In the opening moments of the film, a buffalo slips its tether and runs off into the woods; it may be Boonmee’s memory of a past life. A princess, woebegone because of her flawed appearance, stops by a waterfall in the woods, where a talking catfish convinces her of her beauty and seduces her. Boonmee’s long-dead wife tends to his medical needs at his bedside and they embrace.
Boonmee stands for a world that is passing into extinction, an ongoing process in which the present engulfs its origins. The tale weaves its way toward its peak moment as Boonmee Jen and Tong descend into a cave. The explicitly womblike quality of the location provides a platform for the blurring passage between birth, death, and rebirth. Boonmee senses a previous incarnation as he moves deeper into the cave, a primordial undifferentiated birth, maybe human, perhaps animal, at the least, alive. Perhaps it began among a handful of fish swimming in a pool in the caves far from the light of day. Here, in the depths of the earth, the fission of spirit and matter occurs and completes another turn in the cycle of existence and extinction.
Even the living may separate from themselves to exist in two places at once. Perhaps because of the deadening qualities of modern life: at complacent moments, lulled by distraction, or lies, blinded by ideology, it may be that we die a bit, at which moment our spirits have to go forward seeking fulfillment.
Weerasthakul’s gentle and subtle film moves with unhurried fluidity. The pace of everyday rural life meshes with overarching cosmic rhythms. Few filmmakers would ever try to show us how we can, to paraphrase William Blake, “Hold Infinity in the palm of our hand . And Eternity in an hour.” Weerasthakul demonstrates most deftly that a brightly-lit, colorful restaurant with a karaoke soundtrack can be the purest paradise.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens in Chicago on Friday at the Music Box Theatre.