Every three years or so, one can get genuinely excited about the Palme d’Or winner, and with Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s previous work looming large in best-of-the-decade lists, and now three major Cannes prizes on his mantlepiece, it was particularly welcome news that his Uncle Boonmee should be coming to the AFI Festival (Saturday 6 Nov. at 8.45 in the Mann Chinese 6).
Over the course of six features in the last ten years, Weerasethakul has been searching for a new kind of cinema, a new way of engaging with an audience, something like a dream-state. Uncle Boonmee is more immediately accessible than much else of his work (though it certainly contains its share of mysteries) and in some ways that is what makes this his most successful experiment yet.
Uncle Boonmee is dying of kidney failure. He is spending his last days with sister-in-law Jen, her son and his carer, on his tamarind and honey farm in the country. On the first evening, the ghost of his long-dead wife appears, as does that of his son, missing presumed dead in the jungle, now transformed into a Monkey Ghost. More Monkey Ghosts haunt the forest, lurking black silhouettes with pinpoint laser red eyes. The dead wife ghost sticks around to help drain Boonmee’s kidney. An episode of costume drama intrudes, that may or may not be Boonmee recalling a past life in which he may or may not be the ugly princess, or the talking catfish who procreates with her in a shady pool. The family treks through the jungle to a cave of which Boonmee dreamt, in which he can recall being born in another life. By the end, the film has literally splintered into alternate realities. It is a perception-challenging dream-film, wherein reality is an extremely subjective term – indeed, it skirts dangerously close to meaninglessness – but which instead of demanding that the audience figure out some sort of coded meaning, encourages them to imagine multiple meanings based less on intellect and logic than on instinct and imagination.
Part of the film’s seductive charm is the matter-of-factness with which the supernatural elements are introduced and received by the characters, and this in turn is of a piece with the hypnotic, gentle rhythm. Shots are held, pauses are observed, but neither outstays their welcome, due in part to the wonderful photography (Super16!). In daylight or deep night, Weerasethakul dramatically sculpts the frame with light and shadow; but his great fondness seems for the dusky half-light of the jungle evening, with tones evened to muted but innumerable shades of green and blue. This patient attention makes a character of the setting, primarily Weerasethakul’s beloved jungle, but also the fields of the charming opening vignette (Boonmee’s past life as an escaping cow), and the fantastic cave in which the family ends up. It’s backed up by the carefully-layered sound design which provides a constant background hum, to sub-hypnotic effect, be it naturalistic jungle sounds, Eno-ish ambience, or even a faint, unsourced electronic whine.
The film succeeds because it exudes an unshakable belief in life as a continuum, via the transmigration and reincarnation of souls. In fact, Weerasethakul says he came to question this belief as he was making the film, which is perhaps why the ending feels rather forlorn. But by that time we are out of the jungle and it feels almost like an epilogue; the meat of the film has a mysterious wholeness to it that seems beyond the conventional notions of time and space, a specifically Buddhist worldview wherein humans, animals and nature are all intimately connected in ways too fundamental fully to understand. The film’s crux moment comes when Boonmee says in the cave that he doesn’t know if his eyes are open or shut; Weerasethakul’s aim is to make the audience feel the same way, in the dark, in a dream or hypnosis state, unable to distinguish between the shadows on the wall of the cave, and the real life that is casting them.
There’s a lot of explaining one could do about this film – like the fact that it is part of a larger, multi-platform project (gallery installation,various short films, a book, all with a specific geographical/socio-historical context); or the fact that Weerasethakul based the six reels on different shooting styles, from old Thai TV drama to documentary/observationalist; or even Toronto Star critic Peter Howell’s making a giant fool of himself by damning the film as pretentious, elitist and of arrogantly minority appeal. He’s right that it’s difficult and that many people will see it and pay lip service without remotely “getting it”, and he’s right that there’s a tendency in slow/contemplative cinema to be unnecessarily demanding of an audience and offer too little reward. But that’s far from the case here: he picked the wrong target and he banged a drum, seemingly just for the sake of it, and he displayed an astounding reactivism both against poetry – art! – and against the the artist’s perpetual duty to explore boundaries.
Not getting it is OK, and in fact a deliberately invited response. The wonderfully atmospheric, crupuscular world is one dripping with mystery. The director’s statement is all too true: that film-making remains a means of expression whose most intricate workings have yet to be fully understood, in exactly the same way as the inner workings of the mind remain mysterious. Knowledge – and wonder – will only increase if there are film-makers like Weerasethakul who strive to capture on film those elements of life as we know it and life as we imagine it, that we do not even fully understand ourselves. Anything that seeks seriously to find an alternative metaphor for human existence/experience/perception to that of Plato’s cave is alright by me.