To call a film ‘magical’ or ‘enchanting’ often brands it as exotic whimsy or childish fantasy. But Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s seventh feature requires that we use those adjectives more literally: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is powered by an animist magic that is genuinely mysterious, the more so for being woven into a narrative of everyday life and death.
Boonmee, played with quiet melancholy by non-professional Thanapat Saisaymar, is dying of kidney failure, and haunted by the lives he thinks he might have lived in the past. As the film begins, he is visited by a sister-in-law, Jen, and young nephew, Tong, at his remote farm in north-eastern Thailand, a region where Weerasethakul has concentrated much of his filmmaking. Boonmee is aware of his failing health, yet still active - or stubborn - enough to supervise the farm workers, setting up his dialysis equipment in a tamarind grove, and to spend time with his visiting relatives. The relationships between Boonmee, Jen and Tong are subtly drawn, as is the dynamic between Boonmee and Jaai, the Lao worker who acts as his nurse, and these interactions, set against the rhythms of domesticity and work, and the separate but interlinked live/work patterns of bees, buffalo and omnipresent insects, are in themselves highly involving.
But Uncle Boonmee is more than an elegiac rural drama. It is also a ghost story, a fable and a meditation on memory and place. Tone and style vary, mirroring the shifts between real and supernatural that come to feel logical. The naturalistic scenes of Boonmee and his family start to include the ghost of his wife, Huay, who fades in and out of the picture with eerie calm. Boonmee’s son, Boonsong, now a ‘monkey ghost’ in a gorilla suit with red, flashing eyes, also arrives at dinner and tells the story of his transmigration from human to simian. The main narrative is interrupted by a mythical tale that seems taken from another film altogether, about a princess, a slave and a talking, amorous catfish; its fairy tale atmosphere is derailed by a brilliantly odd interspecies sex scene. Finally, Boonmee’s death takes place in an extraordinary, almost psychedelic sequence whereby he and his family trek through a mountain cave heavy with stalactites in which, he explains, he senses he was born into his first life.
As in his Tropical Malady (2004), Weerasethakul brings plants and animals to vivid life, his skilful observation of nature an important counterpart to Uncle Boonmee‘s more esoteric elements. In an early scene, the family sit outside at a dinner table lit by one small lamp, the presence of the jungle crowding in on them. In the cave where Boonmee dies, glow-worms hang from the walls and tiny fish swarm in the pools, coexistent but alien, the natural proliferation of life-forms resonating with the theme of multiple lifetimes. The military history of the region - occupied for two decades by the Thai army, who carried out frequent attacks against suspected communists - is part of the unquiet, haunted backdrop, too: in one recollection of a very real past life, Boonmee mentions his own spell in the army, and the ‘commies’ he killed.
Weerasethakul’s deep connection with the locality of Uncle Boonmee results from his long-term Primitive project, which includes the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) and Phantoms of Nabua (2009) and has closely involved local people. Does this longer film serve not only as the final work in the sequence, but also as a resolution to the previous films’ exploration of the post-conflict trauma of a place and its people? Its gentle atmosphere suggests so, yet a downbeat coda, in which we see Boonmee’s funeral - in a temple twinkling with neon shrines - followed by Tong (now a Buddhist monk) and Jen in a hotel and karaoke bar, is interestingly devoid of comfort. Tong’s religious vocation appears somewhat casual, and away from the peaceful countryside Jen, who is physically disabled, seems isolated and vulnerable. It is as if Weerasethakul, having interrogated so thoroughly the memories and energy of Nabua and its surroundings, needs to remind us that we can be as easily haunted or displaced in an anonymous town as in the wilderness. Into this setting he introduces one last reincarnatory twist that, to some, will seem needlessly self-referential. For me, Weerasethakul’s stepping back from his own film in its last minutes only serves to reinforce the surety of his vision and the magic of what has gone before.