Uncle Boonmee: Who Can Recall His Past Lives [Blu-ray] [Import]
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Suffering from acute kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee has chosen to spend his final days surrounded by his loved ones in the countryside. Surprisingly, the ghost of his deceased wife appears to care for him, and his long lost son returns home in a non-human form. Contemplating the reasons for his illness, Boonmee treks through the jungle with his family to a mysterious hilltop cave – the birthplace of his first life…
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The basic story of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, that won the prestigious Palme d'Or prize at the 2010 Cannes film festival, is fairly simple and based on the account of a man named Boonmee who recounted to a Buddhist priest his memories of past lives as he prepared for dying. In this version, where Weerasethakul blends his memories of his own father and of his own youth with the story that inspired him, Boonmee is a member of Thailand's landed gentry, who returns home with some family members to die after going to the hospital and being diagnosed with acute kidney failure, for which he has to have daily dialysis treatments. He uses his remaining time to reconnect with family and to reconsider his past. In the telling, however, the story is not so simple.
The film opens on sounds of nature - insects, birds, animal cries; the sounds of life in the wild, outside of the home, the reminder of an ever present living world that surrounds the events taking place in the film, never quite goes away. When, later in the film, Boonmee is visited by his dead wife, she tells him that "heaven is overrated" - it's this world, the world of the living, of insects and animals and plants and spirits, where the present is infused with the past and pregnant with the future, where death and rebirth are ever present, that interests Weerasethakul the filmmaker.
The dawn slowly emerges upon a water buffalo wandering through the lush jungle. It doesn't know or care that it's broken its tether, and is wandering free. For the ox there are no boundaries that matter. The bell around its neck signals to its owner that it has escaped. But it's not so stuck on escape that it resists being led back. Is this one of Boonmee's past lives? Or is he the man who comes to lead the buffalo back to the fold? Or is the catfish who has an encounter with the disfigured princess one of Boonmee's past lives? Or is he the princess, or is he the child she conceives? The basic assumption that underlies this film is that we can't know, that an animal could be an ancestor or a descendant, that the lives of human beings and animals are not so distant. That realization links to two traditional Buddhist doctrines, that are not so much thematized or discussed in this film as assumed. The doctrine of reincarnation and the doctrines of no-self and of interbeing.
In the west the idea of reincarnation seems superstitious and strange because it seems conceptually impossible that I, the same I, could inhabit the body of an animal and then of a man, or of a man and then another man or another woman. But we need to remember that key notions of Buddhism, that accompany the idea of reincarnation are the idea of the non-self and the corresponding notion of interbeing, that to grasp oneself in truth is to recognize that the being of any one thing exists only in its unity and interpenetration with all beings. The famous joke about how the Buddhist orders a hotdog captures this notion crudely: make me one with everything. Related to this doctrine that the true self is the interconnected self, is the idea that what we consider to be self, the isolated ego, is no self at all. I am not a stable self, what I call I is merely a temporary association of feelings and ideas that will pass away, like everything, and holds together only as a result of its causal relations with other things that it effects and that affect it in turn. If there is no true self that underlies its various manifestations and all there is to the self is how it manifests itself in relation to other things at any time, then it should be clear that what we call death and what we call life are interconnected: I am always dying and being reborn, and to die is to pass into a cycle of rebirth, to become part of new lives that will themselves pass away and be reborn. We forget this and become attached to the one self opposed to others, we put ourselves above the others and the result is war: of man against man, of man against nature. We define ourselves in oppositional terms and cling to these fragile identities. We think of man as essentially other than the animal, the living as essentially other than the dead, the Thai as essentially different than the Laotian. At the same time, we think of us as unchanging and continuous, both as individuals, as national identities and as species.
If there is a consistent theme throughout Weerasethakul's work as a filmmaker it is to challenge both the assumed boundaries between us and them, or I and other, or past and future, but also to challenge the presumably simple continuity of the self or of the nation. Boonmee's son goes in search of the monkey spirits of the forest, and ends up becoming one. Boonmee's wife passes away, but can still come to visit. On the other hand, Thailand is only arbitrarily distinguished from Laos by a border, and Boonmee's sister in law is mistaken to think that there is some essential difference between Thais and Laotians. Boonmee is in one sense changed from the young man he was; and yet he feels his illness to be partially the result the impact of the violence he participated in as a soldier, killing communists. Perhaps the most remarkable sign that he has changed, and a delightful metaphor for a central theme of the film, is the fact that he has transformed his extensive family farm in order to raise bees, in accordance with his deceased wife's wishes. On the one hand, bees are clearly not individuals, and have their identity bound up with the life of the hive as a whole. In addition, what allows the bee to survive is also what pollinates the many flowering plants in the farm, and thereby provides fruit and nourishment for many other creatures, so that its life is very explicitly bound up with the vitality of that which surrounds it, something we tend to forget but that Boonmee is coming to discover, and that Weerasethakul hopes to show us. When Boonmee shares the honey with his sister in law, she is delighted. The bee's honey, by design, combines the delicate flavors of tamarind and maize - bitter and sweet, like life.
Taking a trip into an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film is like nothing else in the world. You have to get yourself attuned to the way in which Weerasethakul sees the world; this is not the kind of thing you can adapt to what you think. You must adapt to him. He has a language all his own, and he's not afraid to use it. A good literary parallel would be Cormac McCarthy; once you get into the rhythm of McCarthy's language, you uncover some of the twentieth century's finest literature. So to with Weerasethakul and film. More people are doing so; <em>Loong Boonmee...</em> took the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2010. Did it deserve to? I don't know, I haven't seen everything that was up for the award. Was it one of the best movies released in 2010? Of those I've seen, easily.
There's a lot of confusion surrounding this movie, and I don't quite understand why; it's pretty straightforward when you take the title into consideration. We learn very early on that Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar in his only screen role) is dying; his kidneys are failing. He is looked after by a young servant/gofer. His sister, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas, who showed up in Weerasethakul's <em>Syndromes and a Century</em>) and nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, reprising the Tong role from <em>Tropical Malady</em>, but which Tong role? First half of the movie, or second?), move in. As the film progresses, Boonmee gets closer to his deathbed, and we go through a series of scenes where, as the title tells us, Uncle Boonmee recalls his past lives. The only thing here that should be difficult is figuring out which of the characters in each scene Boonmee actually is. Some of the scenes are obvious (in the very opening scene, he is the buffalo who breaks his bonds and wanders off), some not so (what The Onion called the "infamous carp scene"). Some it's hard to tell where real life leaves off and the hallucinations begin (the journey through the cave). But all of the hallucinatory scenes place Boonmee in his own life as much as they place him in others; we see different aspects of Boonmee's character in each. (As a side note: for those endlessly debating the final scene, think about it in light of this paragraph, and also in light of Tong's character's transformation in <em>Tropical Malady</em>. Don't think about it in any sort of linear sense, but latch onto the fact that the last scene is of a piece with those that have come before.)
As I said above, you have to get Weerasethakul's filmic language in order to fully understand what's going on here, and with <em>Loong Boonmee...</em>, as with <em>Sud Pralad</em> before it, I think a lot of the negative reaction comes form those who haven't internalized that language yet; who in some cases haven't even tried. And let's be fair: this is not a movie for Weerasethakul beginners, not in the least, in the same way that <em>Blood Meridian</em> is not the first book you want to use to introduce yourself to the work of Cormac McCarthy. Start off with earlier Weerasethakul (I will continue to recommend <em>The Mysterious Object at Noon</em> every chance I get until the day I die) and work your way up to these heavily folklore-based films, and you will have a much better idea of what Weerasethakul is on about, thematically. But even if you've no idea, as long as you don't mind very slow films and are willing to just sit back and appreciate the incredible beauty of the cinematography, you will get something out of this. ****
But Weerasethakul's filmmaking genius is much more than good intentions. Consistently his films demonstrate a unique talent for cinematography, dialogue, and directing. His juxtapositions of beauty and bumbling, rural and urban, spirit and material, the ordinary and the extraordinary turn his films into sonnets, and his mostly non-professional actors play so naturally that one forgets that they are acting. Quiet is the best description. Uncle Boonmee's death is poignant and unlike anything else I've ever seen onscreen.
In Uncle Boonmee you see a man in a monkey suit, and then 15 minutes later, a rapturous vision of Shangri-La where a Princess is made love to by a catfish. In the final scenes we have to ask ourselves: Are we the past people? Are we robots hypnotized by electronic media, or a new kind of monk at a new kind of altar? We have to ask that of ourselves.