Sunday, September 26, 2010
EIFF: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
A princess who hides her ugliness behind a veil leans over a pond and catches a glimpse of herself in the water, but beautiful now, the beauty she feels is her right but has been denied her. A catfish surfaces and begins to speak, praising her loveliness, and she enters into the water, dropping her jewels as an offering as she asks to be made as beautiful as her reflection. Finally, she floats in the centre of the pond, and the catfish begins to, um, pleasure her.
This rather odd folktale/digression/past life(?) is dropped into the middle of Apitchatpong Weersethakul’s beguiling, baffling, and altogether astounding Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. More a drifting dream than narrative film, this curiosity from Thailand nonetheless tells the story of Boonmee, an aging farmer whose kidneys are failing him. As the end of his life draws near, he is joined by the ghost of his dead wife and his long-missing son, who appears in the form of a monkey spirit with eyes that glow piercing red in the dark.
Don’t ask me what any of this means on a literal level, or how it relates to the story of the princess, but let me assure you no other film this year has offered me as much pure delight per square inch of celluloid. The key is to not allow the idiosyncrasies of the storytelling distract from the fundamental, and rather simple, theme. Much like how Weersethakul’s earlier Tropical Malady was a deeply strange yet completely clear love story, exalting romantic surrender in the most mystical terms, this film hinges on the idea that any death is also a birth, and then allows us to take that notion in any number of directions.
For instance, in various interviews Weersethakul has spoken of the film as an ode to the dying medium of film. Certainly, you can see a reverence for cinematic history in such disparate reference points as Thai costume drama (the sumptuously shot story of the princess and the catfish) and Chris Marker’s La Jetee (Boonmee’s dream of the future, told in a series of still photos). The darkened cavern Boonmee and co. enter at night is both a womb and movie theatre, the shadows on the wall and primitive cave paintings pointing to the beginnings of all visual arts. It’s the origins of man and the origins of cinema—and the primal place where Boonmee goes to die.
You can take a lot of different ideas from this, which is perhaps the point. Weersethakul carefully avoids overexplaining his films in interviews, and his reasons are obvious. He’s after a sense of wonder above all else, and wonder cannot exist without at least some level of mystery. If you completely understood the significance of the red-eyed monkey spirits, if you knew that they were meant to symbolize such-and-such thing, would you feel that mixture of dread and awe at their appearance? Would you feel anything at all?
Perhaps this sounds like a cop-out, but we’re so used to our cinematic pleasures being parceled out through a neatly organized delivery system that we lack the language to properly praise a film that provides such unfiltered delight. If anything, the real problem is whether or not we would be so accepting of this mystical weirdness from a western director. The last thing exoticism should be is an excuse to engage with art we would deny if it were domestic.
But I can think of no director quite as guileless as Weersethakul, whose work is so open and gentle, even as it looks unblinkingly at the darkness of the world (the violence of his homeland is never denied, with Boonmee even wondering if his illness is karma for the communists he killed in his youth as a soldier). There’s no sense of calculation here—in fact, the story might make more sense if there was. It’s also worth noting that Weersethakul’s father died of a kidney affliction similar to Boonmee’s, suggesting that part of the film’s strangeness comes from how it pulls on private experiences and distorts them for cinematic effect. Like North American eccentrics such as Guy Maddin and David Lynch, Weersethakul’s unique sensibility comes from the way his films derive from his own memories and dreams. He’s probably as much a curiosity to his countrymen as he is to us.
None of which is any help for the hapless viewer approaching this remarkable work. We cannot see this film through Weersethakul’s eyes, only our own. But to my eyes, this is a beautiful film by any measure, open with possibilities for anyone willing to enter its mysteries. This is perhaps what the director intends with the multiple worlds we see at the end of the film. In one alternative, three characters sit in a hotel room, transfixed by the dull glow of the television set, frozen into complete passivity. In the other, two of these people leave the room and head to a karaoke bar, where they may or not sing, but regardless, they are free and moving through the world. I cannot tell you which alternative the director intends as reality. But I can tell you which one is more fun.