Saturday, August 6, 2011

Uncle Boonmee

I’m not going to claim full understanding of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but it did something for me that went beyond understanding, I think. It made me want to increase my understanding.

Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or (top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s a gentle, deliberately paced, and visually sumptuous work. The Thai director who for quite understandable reasons goes by the nickname “Joe” has a distinctive style. Frequently, his compositions are filled from top to bottom, side to side, and corner to corner with foliage. He is closely in touch with nature and seems to be suggesting that we all exist amidst a never ending jungle, literal and figurative.

Uncle Boonmee shows us Boonmee during his final days as he succumbs to kidney failure. (It is based on the true story of man who appeared to Buddhist monks with claims of being able to see his past lives while dreaming.) He is surrounded by a fascinating assortment of caregivers and comforters including a male nurse who administers his dialysis, his devoted sister-in-law, the ghost of his late wife, and his lost son who returns in a not quite human, ape-like form that resembles Bigfoot with laser-like red eyes.

The film consists of quiet scenes of Boonmee receiving care and slowly slipping away seamlessly overlapping with visions of his dreams. The centerpiece is an extraordinary sequence from a time long ago of an aged princess carried by servants before a waterfall where she has a conversation with and ultimately has sex with a catfish. This occurs after she gazes upon her youthful reflection in the water and she rejects a human suitor. It’s a scene that mesmerizes with its folktale-like qualities, yet managed to escape my grasp due to those tales being outside my experience.

I’m fascinated by folktales, but so far have little exposure to those beyond The West. Uncle Boonmee constantly hints at a whole new folk tradition waiting for my discovery. I also have little knowledge of things spiritual outside of Christianity and detect something imminently worth discovery within the film’s lush, densely green frames.

I’ve never encountered a film that suggested so strongly a sense of the circular nature of things; of all living things living in close relationship; and of past, present, and future co-existing. There is a moment where Boonmee’s sister-in-law narrowly misses stepping on an insect and is warned to be more careful as if what’s once small may one day be large and what’s powerful could easily one day be weak, both in this life and in lives to come. That insect may have already spared her life, or may one day end it out of similar carelessness. (A scene where mosquitos are casually killed with an electrified flyswatter left me asking, “Just what are the boundaries in this belief system?”)

Joe has an affinity with nature, but with Uncle Boonmee that extends more than ever to man’s relationship with animals. The opening scene depicts a water buffalo breaking free of its bonds, wandering into the jungle, and then its owner gently retrieving it. Boonmee’s sister-in-law cavorts happily with her dog. Completely relaxed, Boonmee and his sister-in-law taste honey from a hive, bees buzzing all about them. His son returns with an ape-like appearance. And of course that scene with the catfish was one of last year’s most talked about love scenes, to say the least.

More than anything though, what left me wanting about the beliefs expressed in Uncle Boonmee is how all of the people, regardless of cast in life, treat each other with love and respect. I want to learn more, a lot more.

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