Culturally, Americans are not a patient people. We’re infuriated when traffic slows us down, or when it takes longer than a few seconds for approximately all the knowledge in human history to be available at our smart-phone fingertips. And we certainly don’t tend to like our art—particularly in movie form—slow and contemplative. We label such things “pretentious” and/or “boring,” provided we haven’t fallen asleep or been distracted by a moth before an actual conscious evaluation has time to form. In short, we are not the ideal audience for Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
But I think the Thai filmmaker gets that; indeed, it doesn’t take a ton of reading between the lines to find him addressing the very idea of the modern world’s short attention span in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like Weerasethakul’s previous films—including Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century—Uncle Boonmee is a juxtaposition of realities. And in its singularly hypnotic way, it makes a case for the way our perceptions can be expanded if we remove ourselves from modernity.
The reincarnation theme suggested by the title plays a minimal role in the narrative; mostly, it’s the story of a family. On a remote farm, widower Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is in deteriorating health as the result of kidney disease. Arriving to help with his care are Boonmee’s late wife’s sister, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). But accompanying their arrival are two other family members Boonmee was not expecting to see: his wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), now a ghostly apparation; and his son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who disappeared mysteriously 13 years earlier and now resembles a sasquatch with glowing eyes.
If the mere description of such surreal plot elements has lost you already, you’re clearly in the wrong place; a flashback sequence to one of Boonmee’s earlier lives finds a disfigured woman being orally pleasured by a talking catfish. But such funky digressions are a minimal part of a first half in which Weerasethakul focuses on the languid pace of Boonmee’s farm: lingering shots of someone lying in a hammock, Boonmee and Jen enjoying a taste of honey from his beehives, and dark and empty rooms. As the supernatural elements linger and flutter around the edges of this world, the Buddhist undercurrents of Uncle Boonmee become stronger. Through his meticulously composed—and, yes, long—takes, Weerasethakul brings us to a place where people are closer to the quiet borders of other worlds and able to make the kind of peace necessary to move on. There’s something primal about a journey into the wild that becomes a way to confront mortality head on.
This notion may not become most vivid until Uncle Boonmee shifts its setting more than an hour in, after Jen and Tong return to the city. A religious service, despite meditative chanting, is decorated by a multicolored display of flashing lights; Tong, joining in the Thai Buddhist tradition of living as a monk during the period of mourning, can’t stand the monastery’s silence, the robe he discards in favor of jeans, or the absence of a hot shower. And in another surreal moment, Tong and Jen leave to go get something to eat—only to also see versions of themselves still transfixed in front of the television. A film that had been characterized by silences concludes with a pop song playing over the final images, capturing a world with considerably more background noise than Boonmee’s farm.
It’s understandable that the rhythms of a film like Uncle Boonmee can be disorienting for viewers accustomed to Hollywood fare. The performances are certainly little more than perfunctory—even taking into account the appropriately distant and detached delivery of Huay’s ghost—and there’s little in the way of a conventional narrative arc to grasp onto unless you unexpectedly find yourself deeply concerned about whether Boonmee will live or die. But Weerasethakul provides us with a reminder here, however self-serving, of how your perspective can change when things slow down. When flash and dazzle are stripped away, strange and miraculous ideas can open up to us—like the idea that a film can succeed by asking us to be patient.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas , Sakda Kaewbuadee