15. Thailand — Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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Spiritual and meditative — such descriptors for a film could be euphemisms for “boring,” but not the case with this debut “art film” from now-renowned Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The story’s Uncle Boonmee is an older Thai man dying of kidney failure, who as he approaches death, experiences the confluence of the physical and spiritual worlds, the living and the dead, and the past and present. First, he sees his deceased wife, whose appearance is awesomely rendered in a gradual fade from nothingness to image. Then, his son, who had long ago wandered into the forest and was thought lost, appears not as a human, but in the form of a “ghost monkey” — think of the primates in 2001: A Space Odyssey with glowing red eyes. Then, things get even weirder.

There is a sequence from the past that can be understood as a reincarnation experience. It involves intercourse between a human princess and a fish, but is not render in a silly or camp way. It’s actually quite cinematic, beautiful and melancholy. There is a primordial cave, which could be seen as where life begins or ends. But does it really end?

Uncle Boonmee thinks his illness is reckoning for misdeeds in his past lives, or for killing communists in his earlier present life. He mostly just hangs around, with his sister, nephew, and Laotian nursing assistant. He reflects on the past and his past lives on a farm in the rural Thai countryside, up near the Laos border. Eventually, Boonmee dies, the only certainty for our species. I am still perplexed about the meaning of the epilogue with the nephew who has become a monk and experiences his own dissociative state.

After winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this film launched an exciting career for the director. (The next film in this series coincidentally is also a Palme d’Or winner.) I think Weerasethakul is also the first director in this series who identifies in the LGBTQ+ community. His films have explored topics like sexuality and homosexuality, which are traditionally considered taboo in Southeast Asian culture, even though I did not note such themes in Uncle Boonmee. In this world cinema project, we’ve looked at films meant to represent a place. Uncle Boonmee undoubtedly represents a spiritual place.

I watched Uncle Boonmee on DVD from the Arlington Public Library.

This is #15 in my World Tour of Cinema project. Read my introductory post here.

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