CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - Like most of his feature films, Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” is set in Isan province, where he grew up. It playfully invokes both the lifestyle and animistic beliefs of the Northeast country folk, and the primitive magic of early Thai cinema, relating both of these to his musings on reincarnation.
Since commercial returns or widespread support have never been factored into Weerasethakul’s career, its surprise win of the Palme d‘Or Sunday will seal its favorable future in festivals and specialist releases.
Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) who is afflicted with acute kidney failure, returns to his country estate in Isan to spend his last days under the care of his devoted yet no-nonsense sister-in-law Jen (Jenjiro Pongpas), nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and Jaai, a Burmese worker.
One evening, while the family is relaxing on their terrace, the apparition of Boonmee’s dead wife Huay (Nattakarn Aphaiwonk) appears, followed by long-lost son Boonsong. Boonsong, who looks like a Yeti with red laser beam eyes, recounts how his interest in photography led him deep into the jungle in search of Monkey Ghosts, until he himself is transformed into one.
The matter-of-fact way in which the humans interact with dead or otherworldly beings make for some deadpan humor: upon seeing Thuy in halogenic form and Boonsong in a rubbery gorilla suit, Tong remarks, “I feel like the strange one here.” There is also eerie poignancy in the way spiritual beings hover around Boonmee as they sense his impending transition to another world.
The film was inspired by a book by a Buddhist abbot recording accounts of people who remembered their past lives. Although Boonmee attributes his illness to the karma of his having killed too many “Commies” and rid his farm of bugs, Weerasethakul does not broach the subject in terms of causality or retribution, nor does he tie Boonmee’s past lives to any tangible persona or timeline. The cave which becomes his resting place is also where his first life began. The crucial point he recalls is that at his genesis, he was “neither human nor animal, neither man nor woman.”
This makes the structure free-floating and esoteric, incorporating myth (underwater sex between a facially-tainted princess and a catfish), politics (photographs of soldiers hinting at military-related human disappearances) and parallel worlds (Tong and Jen in different places at the same time).
This view of reincarnation as all beings coexisting in one non-linear universal consciousness is also central to Apitchatpong’s conception of cinema as the medium with the power to replay past lives and connect the human world to animal or spiritual ones. That may be why he shot the last scenes involving parallel worlds in 16mm, as homage to the format of film in his childhood memory. His casting of actors or roles (like a monk, a Burmese worker) from previous films in also a kind of reincarnation of the director’s cinematic past lives.
The director’s film language has always been experimental, intuitive and personal to the point of mystical (or mystifying to a mainstream non-Thai audience). By comparison, “Uncle Boonmee” employs less difficult cinema vocabulary, staying away from any avant garde filming technique and allowing one to tune into its sleepy, meditative frequency. The natural locations (especially the cave glittering in the dark) exude cosmic energy, while sound extracted from wildlife plays as significant a role as an animate being.