Juliette Binoche and William Shimell cover a lot of ground in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy: about life and art and relationships, Warhol’s soup cans, Michelangelo’s “David,” da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” and how an ordinary object, when copied, never changes meaning, even if the perspective does. What would these two players in Kiarostami’s heady essay film say about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, possibly the chillest filmmaker on the cine-block? They may not equate it to Paz Encina’s fatuous Paraguayan Hammock, whose tony aesthetic insists on reinforcing the distance between Western viewers and the third-world people and objects they behold, but even if they praise the hypnotic splendor of Apichatpong’s signature aesthetic, would they still question who it’s meant for?
Throughout Uncle Boonmee, a film cooly transfixed by the open-door relationship between the living and the dead, Apichatpong sees weirdness and wonder in the mundane, from the taste of tea to a daylight stroll across a field alive with the buzz of honeybees. By night, spirits gather around Uncle Boonmee (Thnapat Saisaymar) like moths to a flame—first his wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), then his son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has taken the shape of an ape-like creature with neon-red eyes. Their appearance is shocking, to Boonmee’s friends and family, but also to the audience, though their presence is quickly accepted and understood as a communion—preparations for Boonmee, who suffers from some unspecified kidney disorder, as he tiptoes toward the afterlife.
Apichatpong’s eye and ear for detail is keyed to his character’s simple desires and anxieties—like the way Boonmee’s sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), associates the taste of chewy-like-bugglegum honey to “heaven” and the alternately sweet and bitter taste of a cup of tea to the foreigners who brought this particular brew to her region of the world. A world-class filmmaker seemingly without a contemptuous bone in his body, Weeraskethakul may not judge the woman’s prejudices, which he recognizes, not unlike the mysticism that largely defines everyone’s existence, as a fact of life, though some may wonder if the captivatingly immersive feel of the man’s work doesn’t constitute a calculated pose.
Uncle Boonmee is not as audaciously sculpted as Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, but Apichatpong’s unornate contemplation of people and landscape still blisses me out. This is nothing if not an evocative vision; it takes me back to my summer last year in Guantanamo, travelling through fields covered in mango trees, up the treacherous mountain my mother had to scale as a girl in order to go to school, into unassuming waterfalls, even a bat-infested cave from which you could best gawk at our Naval Base, sleeping on floors, drinking beers and smoking unfiltered cigarettes on logs seemingly ripped from a Grimm fairy tale. The film’s sights and sounds are familiar and comforting to me, even if I’ve never known people whose lives are so consistently and improbably Zen.
Reinvention, if not exactly reincarnation, is still, somewhat redundantly, on the filmmaker’s mind, and though full of fabulous digressions, such as an episode in which a youth-mongering princess gets eaten out by a shaman in the shape of a catfish, the film exudes the air of a doodle—something half-conceived, albeit painfully so. At its most haunting, as when Boonmee dreams of “past people” like his son being tortured in a future that stands obviously for the present, Apichatpong briefly, and with tongue firmly planted in cheek, gets provocative, slyly addressing the oppressive forces that not only control the lives of his fellow Thai countrymen but also keep a close eye over his work. It’s at this jarring point that one realizes that Apichatpong’s voice is not one that wishes to filter out—which is to say, deny—the political reality of his characters’ lives, but one that understands that it must speak softly in order to be heard at all.