Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’ Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.
Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand. The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my. The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.
Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.
In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.