PRINT March 2011


Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, 114 minutes. Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee)

WE HAVE SEEN THEM BEFORE: the austere bedroom whose windows frame a vastness of grass and swaying forest; lozenges of light mysteriously shimmering in nighttime jungle; the young monk tired of isolation, yearning for human contact and popular diversion; an old woman weeping in bitter loneliness by a river; the sacred cave where souls are reborn; a Buddhist funeral bier gaudily lit like a Coney Island ride to the great beyond. The work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has always been one of recurrence and reincarnation—of characters, images, and settings, returning both within and between films, transmogrified but recognizable as their former selves. A conscious summa of his cinema until now, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which opens at Film Forum in New York on March 2) serves as précis for Apichatpong initiates and as primer for his novices. The former will recognize his favorite actors and tropes, his motifs of illness and unwanted solitude, his seamless, spectral shifting between the actual and the otherworldly. Neophytes, drawn perhaps by the film’s surprise win of the Palme d’Or last year at Cannes, may be confounded by the work’s narrative detours and abrupt alterations of tone, and by the ordinariness of the extraordinary: a soul migrating from a water buffalo that escapes its tether (in the pre-credit sequence) into the body of a dying man and thence, possibly, into a pebble-faced princess, whose story suddenly hijacks the otherwise relatively linear narrative; or a long-lost son returning home as a furred “monkey ghost,” his eyes glowing ember-red in his Wookiee-like head. (“Why did you grow your hair so long?” his aunt inquires of his hirsute self.) So serene and unblinking is Apichatpong’s treatment of the supernatural that the viewer may identify with the nonplussed Laotian worker Jaai, who declares early in the film, “I feel like the strange one here.”

With Boonmee, an account of the last days of a farmer expiring from kidney failure, Apichatpong once again draws on his autobiography with its somatic concerns and rural locale; his father, a doctor, died of a similar malady, and the film is set in Isan, the poor northeastern region of Thailand where the director grew up. (The gentle ministrations of Jaai, who methodically tends to Boonmee’s dialysis in long, fixed shots, bespeak the director’s intimate knowledge of the apparatus.) Forgoing the diptych structure that became a trademark (and eventually a burden) of Apichatpong’s previous features, which start over, sometimes precisely at midpoint (as in Syndromes and a Century [2006]), Uncle Boonmee also differs from his earlier cinema in its explicit broaching of Thailand’s political history. Boonmee claims that his illness is karmic payback for his role in killing Communists during the government’s brutal suppression of agrarian protests, a point both emphasized and somewhat dodged by a director whose films have hitherto been mostly politically oblique. Boonmee killed with good intentions, insists Jen, his sister-in-law whose father also eliminated agitators. “You killed the Commies for the nation, right?” she asks, the question left hanging in the unsettled air.

Viewers unaware that Uncle Boonmee is part of a multiplatform project called Primitive, a series of films and installations that address the legacy of the Communist suppression in Isan from the mid-1960s into the ’80s, will no doubt be baffled by the unexplained interpolation, considerably later in the film, of a montage of still photographs of young men in army dress. A vestige of an earlier version of Uncle Boonmee, the montage not only recalls similar moments (influenced by Chris Marker’s classic La Jetée [1962]) such as the flurry of stills of Cholburi in Syndromes and a Century, but also briefly conjures its own ghost and literally serves as memento. The military-garbed youths, who gather around someone in a gorilla suit for a portrait reminiscent of the soldiers-and-corpse group shot at the outset of Tropical Malady (2004), represent Isan locals whose parents or grandparents were persecuted or murdered during the purge. Their inexplicable presence becomes another in the film’s landscape of apparitions.

The titles of many of Apichatpong’s short films and essays—Haunted Houses (2001), Ghosts of Asia (2005), Phantoms of Nabua (2009), “Ghosts in the Darkness” (2009)—suggest both the director’s immense debt to popular Thai culture and its love of eerie tales, and his abiding concern with memory, ghosts being manifestations of remembrance. “For me,” Apichatpong says, “the experience in this village was always related to Boonmee’s existence. It is a place where memories are repressed. I want to link it with the guy who remembers everything.” Boonmee’s memories do return as ghosts, not to haunt but to succor. A simple meal of glass noodles and fried chili turns into a phantasmal family reunion when Boonmee’s wife, Huay, who died almost two decades before, and their son, Boonsong, who disappeared into the forest long ago, both reappear as guests at the table. This incursion of spirits is treated with Apichatpongian poise: Lights are adjusted for Boonsong’s simian eyes, and Aunt Jen inquires about his fur as if admonishing an errant hippie nephew. While Jen is one of many self-possessed but lonely older women in Apichatpong’s cinema—she chased her husband out with a butcher knife—her ghostly sister seems something new, a beautiful, deadpan phantom who declares: “Heaven is overrated. There is nothing there.” On the other hand, Boonsong’s tale seems a refashioning of the story of the two lovers Keng and Tong in Tropical Malady in its chronicle of a man who pursues through deepest jungle an animal spirit with burning eyes—a tiger in the earlier film, a monkey in Boonmee—mating and merging with this once-human soul.

Memory becomes manifold metaphor in the film, which is a kind of lament for the very medium on which it was made: 16 mm, a format quickly becoming obsolete as digital replaces celluloid. Apichatpong also devised Boonmee to embody a history of the Thai films that nurtured him as a child, claiming that each of its six reels is scripted and shot in the style and tone of a distinct genre of his country’s cinema. These divisions are less apparent than he claims, perhaps because Apichatpong’s work has always made ample room for narrative digression and stylistic switchbacks. The lovely honey-harvesting excursus, in which Jen samples Boonmee’s tamarind-and-maize-tasting nectar, joins such sequences as those depicting the manufacture of skin cream in Blissfully Yours (2002) and the cutting of ice blocks in the first half of Tropical Malady—documentary infiltrating fiction, rendering the respective products as the everyday transformed into something strange and wondrous. The most dizzying deviation happens at the fifty-minute mark, as Boonmee’s story abruptly gives way to that of a princess transported by palanquin to a waterfall, where she encounters a talking catfish that, in an animist send-up of Leda and the Swan, performs what can only be called piscatorilingus on the grateful royal. Then, just as quickly, we’re right back at Boonmee’s table, bugs being dispatched with an electrified swatter whose every zap registers palpably in the film’s closely worked soundscape.

“I have no concept of time,” Huay says, and the viewer soon feels the same way, as Apichatpong typically intensifies and confuses temporality, the occasional precision—it has been nineteen years since Huay’s death—played off against a floating sense of duration and chronology. Though Apichatpong has admitted to impatience with other Asian directors’ use of the long take—he gets bored!—he typically protracts shots, sometimes parking the camera at a distance from the “action” so that time seems suspended. The dinner table with its ghostly guests, for instance, becomes a remote, orangey glow floating in the midst of a nocturnal landscape, a mote of humanity in the immensity of nature, out of time in both a literal and a metaphoric sense. And, in Boonmee’s re-creation of the ménage à trois at the end of Blissfully Yours, using two of the earlier film’s actresses and once again courting censorship by having Tong sexily strip off his monk’s saffron robes, the film ends by confounding our impression of space as well as time: Duplicate incarnations of Tong and Jen simultaneously watch television in a hotel room and eat at a nearby 7-Eleven, the latter a paradise of acid lime and cherry festooned with kitsch lights and sweet Thai pop.

Apichatpong’s admiration for Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s recent Strange Case of Angelica (2010) comes as no surprise. Angelica and Boonmee are both ghost stories about death and commemoration, full of low-tech fantasy paying cockeyed homage to early cinema (in Oliveira’s case, to Méliès). Each film documents disappearing traditions in the region where its director grew up (the Douro, Isan) and features a photographer who, through his vocation, ends up merging with a mysterious object of affection: a dead blonde in Angelica, a monkey ghost in Boonmee. Exploring photography—in which pictures both capture reality and act as conduits to the uncanny—as a constituent of cinema, Oliveira and Apichatpong emphasize, through the act of seeing, the medium’s basic elements (light especially), the subjectivity of perception, and the still photograph as both analogue and opposite of the moving one. “What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open but I can’t see a thing,” Boonsong cries, looking up at the moon through a clearing in the trees—a natural “aperture” that Apichatpong repeats, along with the affliction of night blindness, when the pilgrims arrive at the hilltop cave that serves as both Boonmee’s womb and his tomb. (The director cannot resist coupling shots across the film and with other works; for instance, these apertures with the black disc of solar eclipse itself rhymed with a pipe’s dark orifice in Syndromes and a Century.) In one of the most moving sequences in contemporary cinema, Oliveira’s photographer snaps a series of vineyard laborers, each frame freezing time and type in an act of tender remembrance, much like Apichatpong’s montage of young “soldiers.” The ancient Portuguese and the youthful Thai bless us as witnesses to a fast-vanishing world that may soon be unable to recall its past lives.

James Quandt, senior programmer at Tiff Cinematheque in Toronto, is the editor of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (wallflower press, 2009).