Uncle Boonmee: ghosts and myths

On Friday evening at FACT we saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives from the Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which won the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes.  We emerged somewhat baffled but, for the most part, enthralled. It’s a film that is often beautiful to look at, but which draws to a close with prosaic scenes in a Bangkok hotel room. Leaving the cinema, you recall visions: a water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a ghost gradually fading into view to join family members around the table as the jungle darkens beyond,  a princess with leprosy seeing her beautiful reflection in a pool, a talking catfish with erotic powers, strange red-eyed monkey-ghosts, a couple savouring raw honey, the ghost of a dead wife performing her husband’s kidney dialysis, a journey with a dying man through the jungle night and deep into a cave.

Boonmee is a Thai farmer, calmly facing death from kidney failure.  He journeys from the city to the farmhouse he shares with his sister-in-law, deep in the jungle. While eating dinner on the evening of their arrival, the ghost ofBoonmee’s  dead wife materializes beside them at the table, followed by that of  his long-lost son. Animal spirits appear, Boonmee inspects work on his farm, the routine of kidney dialysis is observed, myths and journeys invoked.  The film’s tempo is slow and contemplative, seeming to reflect Boonmee’s calm acceptance in the face of death.  Towards the end, however, the film changes.  After Boonmee’s death, we see still photos of a Thai army unit in action and the scene shifts to Bangkok for Boonmee’s funeral.  The final scene takes place in a hotel room where two relatives are joined by a young orange-robed monk, who changes into jeans and trainers before their personas divide – one set going for a meal in a nearby restaurant where ear-deafening karaoke is being performed.

So what does it all mean?  The ravishing opening sequence of the tethered buffalo breaking loose and gaining a moment’s freedom before the farmer finds it and leads it home may be a reference to the Buddhist tale of searching for the lost ox – an allegory in ten drawings of the quest for enlightenment and the shedding of illusion, achieved only when we become aware of the oneness of the universe, seeing no distinction between ourselves and all the things that are part of of the world.

Perhaps this is a commentary on Boonmee’s reflective calm and the ghosts of lost loved ones that appear to him – as much part of the world as his house, the objects within it, and the apparatus for his kidney dialysis.

Weerasethakul has spoken of Uncle Boonmee being a tribute to the local myths he learnt growing up in Thailand’s north-east and a parable on Thai cinema which he feels is ‘dying or dead’.  In one interview about the film he stated:

It’s mostly a memory of when I grew up, and my childhood…remembrance and the memory of the landscape I grew up with and the films I remember, and also the political landscape. …a memory of the region, Nabua. …The idea for the film began when I got a little book from a monk from my hometown, about this guy who could remember his many past lives.

More than my other films, Uncle Boonmee is very much about cinema, that’s also why it’s personal. If you care to look, each reel of the film has a different style—acting style, lighting style, or cinematic references—but most of them reflect movies. I think that when you make a film about recollection and death, you have to consider that cinema is also dying—at least this kind of old cinema that nobody makes anymore. […]

The first reel is really like my way of filming: you see the animal in the forest, a long take with the kidney dialysis, and the driving scene. And the second reel is very much like old cinema with stiff acting, no camera movement, and a very classical stage, like Thai TV drama, with monsters and ghosts. The third reel becomes like a documentary, shot in the exteriors on the tamarind farm—and also French, in a way, this kind of relaxing film. The fourth reel, with the princess and the catfish, is a costume drama, a Thai cinema of the past. So even though there is a continuity, the time reference always shifts… The fifth reel is the jungle, but it’s not the same jungle as Tropical Malady because it’s a cinema jungle—a day-for-night drama that we shot with a blue filter, like very old films. You put this old actor into a cinema jungle, and the cave refers to those old adventure novels or comic books. (In the scene with the ghost we also used a mirror, another allusion to the cinema of the past.) And the sixth reel, in the hotel, the time is slowed down, the time has become seemingly documentary. Again it’s like my films, with the long takes, but at the same time in the end when it splits, when you see the doubles of the two characters, Jen and Tong, I wanted to suggest the idea of time disruption, that the movie isn’t dealing with one reality, there are multiple planes…’

In her review for The Times, Wendy Ide commented: 

The film’s enchantment is at its most potent during a pilgrimage by Boonmee and his family to a cave high in the hills – the throbbing growl on the soundtrack creates a kind of aural architecture for the dying man’s gateway from this life to the next. It’s spine-tingling stuff. Directly afterwards we are returned to the mundane reality of life after Boonmee’s death – a place where prosaic funeral arrangements are discussed in featureless hotel rooms, and the ghosts have retreated to the forests. But by this time, the film’s spell has taken effect and its curious magic is evident everywhere from the saffron of a monk’s robes to the gaudy fairy lights of a low-rent karaoke bar.

At MUBI, Daniel Kasman evokes the mood of the film in this passage:

Ghosts and myths swarm in the darkness, quietly menacing but keeping their distance, the threat more of mystery than danger or haunting, a reminder of memories and the history of the land. These things are of another side to things, but what that side is is impossible to say. With the constant chirp of bugs at night or the beating of the sun during the day filling the soundtrack, life is slowed down to the hypnotic, warm pace of nature, smiling conversations, and the rhythm of hazy memories, recollected children’s tales, the flow of village folklore.

The film is full of life, dead and alive, and suffuse with gentleness. Boonmee and his family greet the dead with smiles and love, and the film emits a luminescence as tactile as the milky forest chiaroscuro of its 16mm photography and as ambient as the tender embrace between Boonmee and his dead wife, the netted, soft rainbow pastels that paint the dead woman’s view of her sleeping sister, and Tong’s silent willingness to follow the family into the deepest forest and emerge a changed man. The natural, unexplained and unexplainable flow of reincarnation that pulses through the film—which diverts to tell the story of a water buffalo, of a scarred princess and her catfish lover, of a magic cave of chalky silver, strange shapes and blind fish hidden in the woods, of briefly stepping away from a troubled, mournful life—calms everyone, and the film itself. The Ghost Monkeys look like frightful beasts, eyes like red bulbs as they creep and swing through the trees, but Boonmee creates a world where there may be anxiety over the unknown but there is no fear, only acceptance and care. A richness of time, a human time. Passings and returns ebb out of human life into the unexplained, into the myth and folklore, where sharing fresh honey on a sunny day is as beautiful as embracing a ghost, the dark life of the jungle, or the simple heartbreak of the final draining of Boonmee’s beleaguered kidney. It is probably as simple a film as Apichatpong, whose cinema is lovingly cryptic, can get, as if a human radiance humbly simplifies everything, from the mysteries of death and melancholy, to the origin of the world and friendship, family, and the dead gathering over a night’s dinner.

As for the red-eyed monkey-ghosts and the sequence featuring photographs of a Thai army unit in action, I’m indebted to the World Socialist Web Site for the suggestion that this is a reference to bloody repression of Communist Party supporters throughout Thailand’s north and north-east during the 1970s. In the film, Boonmee recalls serving as a soldier in this period and expresses his belief that his illness is a result of bad karma created by his involvement in the anti-communist crackdown.  Boonmee’s sister-in-law attempts to dismiss this, declaring: ‘You killed commies for the nation’.  Boonmee replies: ‘For the nation? Whatever. What a pain in the ass’.

During the opening credits I noticed that the film had been co-commissioned by FACT, as part of Weerasethakul’s Primitive Project.  Uncle Boonmee was borne out of the Primitive installation which was shown at FACT in September 2009.  It turns out that FACT has had a long-standing relationship with Weerasethakul over the years, including showing his installation Faith at Liverpool Biennial in 2006.  Strange, then, that Uncle Boonmee was being shown by FACT with no fanfare and in the small confines of The Box.

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