I had a chance to see this film at a festival and was quite fascinated. I'd seen most of the director's other films on dvd. Although he studied filmmaking in the United States, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (known to those who know him simply as "Joe") seems almost to reinvent cinema with each new film. There is an innocence in his eye, a freshness in his vision, that makes it feel as if he is doing something very different with his camera than what we are used to. Scenes of nature, in particular, are sometimes included in his films to create an atmosphere or mood or to establish the emotional state of one of the characters, rather than as a strict continuation of plot. He works in a tradition of contemplative cinema, that gives the viewer time to reflect and cause to wonder, and while his style and subject matter is quite different, I think he deserves to be mentioned alongside filmmakers such as Carlos Reygadas and Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni. His approach to filmmaking is not far in fact from Tarkovsky's montage and memory infused The Mirror.
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.