The films of master Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul are transcendental journeys with uncertain paths of endless mystery and reward. His latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is another masterpiece (making it three in a row), wherein the relationship between people, cinema, and memory permeates every frame. Now that he has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Apichatpong’s status has been heightened dramatically, and subsequently his work is reaching a broader audience. While the internationally renowned director’s new film is baffling some unsuspecting viewers who are too conditioned by convention, it seems clear to me that Apichatpong’s films are actually very accessible. Sure his films are difficult to make heads or tails of, in a certain sense, but there really aren’t any prerequisites for experiencing them. There is no “You must be this intellectually tall to ride Film Socialisme” sign (not a criticism, just a point). Apichatpong explores memory; The memories of North East Thailand, his own memories, and most of us are equally in the dark when it comes to the related background knowledge such memories concern. Such knowledge has little bearing on whether or not one can enjoy his films. Perhaps certain external insights can enhance or, at least, alter one’s experience, but still, nothing is required to validate that experience. Apichatpong creates a realm where all these memories can intertwine with our own, and in doing so, is responsible for providing some of the most liberating work in cinema.
As one becomes immersed in the world of Apichatpong, enraptured by the sounds of the forest or the glare of the sun, access is gained to an alternative consciousness. A whole new range of feeling emerges. This sensation is, of course, difficult to articulate, but its power is considerable. Even when asked about the transcendental qualities of his films, Apichatpong shrugs and calls it the power of cinema, something which his films exemplify. While his body of work has great variety, there are commonalities among the emotions they convey. The mysterious necessity of nature is overwhelming and dominates all of his films. Often, his camera longs to bask in the sun, and as participants in these films, so do we. There aren’t many filmmakers as eager to simply record joy, especially with such modesty. In the first half of Tropical Malady, his characters are almost always smiling. Infectious to the point of bliss, Apichatpong’s reveling in delight is a rare treasure when most filmmakers would never be so disarmed and sincere. The range of reactions you’re bound to find amongst a cinema crowd attests to the subjective experience it fosters. The cinematically naïve and veterans alike are in a unique and unpredictable territory. Even those familiar with Apichatpong face several surprises in his new film.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film about death. It is also a film about eternal life. Reincarnation, transformation, and rebirth all play a part in the film, and in several levels of context. On a personal level, like with each of Apichatpong’s films, Uncle Boonmee is a cinematic diary entry; Impressions of life committed to celluloid to form an individual history; a storage for memories. In revisiting the land where he grew up, Apichatpong explores the past and integrates it into the film, in passing moments or in the several distinct styles employed throughout it. The misé en scene shifts throughout the film, moving from a style familiar to Apichatpong to others reminiscent of the cinema, television and comic books that have informed his memories. These shifts, while noticeable, aren’t necessarily easy to pick up. Some changes are more abrupt than others, such as when the usually still camera uproots itself as the characters enter a mysterious cave. In channeling these styles, Apichatpong isn’t simply making references but instead widening his approach to his themes. If these were clever nods to specific works many would be alienated as a result. While this is a creative decision Apichatpong is highly conscious of, as it is certainly a more meticulous endeavor than his past films, for us it is an intuitive element expanding our experience beyond just watching the central linear narrative unfold and causing us to recognize greater things at work. Perhaps it is our minds that unfold. Moreover, perhaps our consciousness and the consciousness of the film aren’t even separate, engaged in a metaphysical ebb and flow. So, in summary, on the personal level, Apichatpong’s memories are in a sense reincarnated, transformed and reborn. In a historical and political context the same dynamic can be applied.
As previously mentioned, it is not only the memories of the filmmaker that make up the movie but an intermingling along with the past of Northeast Thailand and the personal experiences of the real Uncle Boonmee, whose recollections inspired the film. Uncle Boonmee regretfully remarks in the film, “I’ve killed too many communists”, referring to a fairly recent part of Thailand’s cultural memory. While Boonmee sees his actions as resulting in bad karma and his kidney failure, Apichatpong still sees his nation’s viewpoint as immature as the character of Jen shrugs off Boonmee’s comment, reassuring him he did it for the good of the nation. This is the same character that kills a great many bugs in the film whether by stepping on them or using an electric zapper. Perhaps most eerily, one shot shows an array of large glowing bug zappers in a field at night, collecting victims in buckets. Is there a connection in this careless killing? Are the bugs reincarnated communists (as Mark Peranson has suggested in Cinemascope)? Apichatpong’s depiction of interaction with the past is not a nostalgic venture but a melancholy lamentation. As for the real Uncle Boonmee, it is quite clear why his story interested Apichatpong. A man who resided in Northeast Thailand, who could recall his many lives is the perfect gateway to all the elements that preoccupy the Thai auteur. However, the line between the real Uncle Boonmee and other presences began to blur as Apichatpong made the film.
Starting out as an exploration of the real man, and becoming a more internal voyage, the character of Uncle Boonmee inherited parts of Apichatpong himself as well as his late father. Memories of his father’s illness and death fuel much of the film. Like Uncle Boonmee, his father suffered from kidney failure and scenes of the title character undergoing dialysis possess a quiet and deeply resonant sadness. One of the most striking moments of the film occurs when Boonmee embraces the ghost of Huay, his deceased wife, after she sets the dialytic process in motion. If one takes a moment to meditate on that image, and the surrounding context, it is difficult not to be moved. There is a less clinical way of connecting Apichatpong’s father to Boonmee, in that the death of cinema makes up a large part of the film’s themes and merging the death of his biological father with the death of what could be considered a fathering influence makes perfect sense. It is not just an attempt for Apichatpong to express his feelings towards both of these considerable losses, but also to preserve them, forever, within the separate life of his film.
As for the presence of Apichatpong in Boonmee, there are several comparisons to draw, the most important being between Boonmee’s pilgrimage to the cave and Apichatpong’s approach to the film itself. Late in the film, Uncle Boonmee and the other characters arrive at a cave. They navigate its dark corridors with a flashlight, which in combination with the ominous sound design gives the sequence a great mystery and power. They come to a wall of glowing rocks, and after a few moments, move on. The camera stays positioned at the glowing rocks, which now are unlit by flashlight, leaving the frame to look as if filled with glowing stars, something like the universe from a distance. This sequence is a return to the beginning of something, perhaps of everything. Boonmee mentions that he knows he was born here, although he can’t remember his actual life. Another character remarks that the cave is like a womb, and coincidentally or not, the entrance to it does have an almost vaginal appearance. Boonmee has retreated to his beginning, and Apichatpong has retreated to his beginning as well, foraging his earliest memories of cinema to compose the film. In this sequence, which is nothing short of profound, he portrays the death of Boonmee, his father, an era of cinema, and maybe even a part of himself. The cave sequence contains the same cosmic magnitude as the Starchild sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As Boonmee utters his final words in one of the more difficult sections of the film, seemingly inspired by Chris Marker’s Le Jeteé (he also seems to recreate an iconic image from Antonioni’s Blow-Up), he speaks of a dream that sounds a little like how Apichatpong sees cinema, and it is here that Apichatpong lines up all the components that form his Boonmee. Then he dies. All of the monkey ghosts that have appeared in the film all seem to have gathered to bear witness and their intense red eyes stare at us through the screen. It isn’t long before the film cuts from the eerie dark of night to a beautiful sunny shot of the forest. Tong emerges from the “womb” and climbs to the surface above the cave. Then we see the jungle from a greater distance than before, a unified scream of nature dominates which is at once startling and angry, but so alive. The death of the preceding scene obliterated by a signifying of the living. Apichatpong often likes to transcend space by having the dialogue or sound of one location continue over shots of other locations, usually someone will be speaking and then it will cut to the forest without altering the soundtrack. This effect is used most strongly when this scream of nature persists as the film jumps ahead in time and to such an opposing location, Boonmee’s funeral. The scream slowly fades into the whirring of ceiling fans overhead. When Apichatpong cuts to reveal the colourful lights decorating Boonmee’s coffin, it is hard not to think of the musical Christmas lights found in a cave in Tropical Malady. On the DVD commentary for Tropical Malady, Apichatpong reveals that those Christmas lights, which play polyphonic renderings of famous carols, were used for decoration at his father’s funeral. Oh, and a quick aside on the blending of memories: I own that very same set of musical lights, and they have donned many-a-Christmas tree in my household over the years. These funereal lights are harkened back to again in one of the final shots of the film, at a karaoke bar, where any lines that once divided life, death, the character, the film, Apichatpong, and the audience become too ambiguous to recognize. If there is rumination on the death of cinema within the final passage of the film it is at once also rumination on a rebirth, uttered in the same sequence of enigmatic images.