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New York Film Festival 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives</em>

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” —William Faulkner

There’s a new game in international cinema, one that began at least 15 years ago but that American audiences are only just discovering. Dave Kehr described some of the movement’s features in The New York Times this past March: ambiguous-to-incomplete narratives, unknown and/or nonprofessional actors whose real lives inform their performances, a mixture of fictional and documentary material in the screenplays, and action unfolding in studied long shots, which can run for several minutes and in which the chief focus is on how the character interacts with his or her environments, both manmade and natural.

Kehr was writing specifically about the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, and also mentioned Roy Andersson (Sweden), Lisandro Alonso (Argentina), and Jia Zhang-Ke (China). He could have easily mentioned Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, currently producing the most exciting work of any of them. It’s true that Apichatpong’s films can be difficult to get into; when I first saw his 2004 film Tropical Malady, I found myself swooning over the delicately photographed, lyrically motorbike-bound gay love story in the first half and checking my watch, over and over, during the long nighttime hunt for a glowing-eyed tiger in the second. Lacking knowledge of Thai culture or its mythology, I felt, quoting Jonathan Rosenbaum on an earlier Apichatpong film, “a lack of an analytical context in which to place this material.”

In time, though, I grew comfortable with my confusion, and not just because I realized that Apichatpong’s movies probably stump native Thailanders too. It’s because the sounds and images were stunning, so that even when I felt lost I could watch the camera glide past a glowing white statue and be satisfied. My goal became to appreciate the people and objects on screen for themselves, independent of narrative concerns. Ultimately, I found that Apichatpong’s movies encourage this shift in thinking—that indeed, a major goal of theirs is to make you see all life forms as beautiful.

Avatar tried to push movies forward with brand new digital effects. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong’s new film (and a Palme d’Or winner), startles you with effects that go back to cinema’s origins, a technique that paradoxically feels more revolutionary than regressive. In the movie’s first scene, a family sits at a dinner table, and a dead relative suddenly fades into view. The trick goes back to the French fabulist Méliès, who made movies over 100 years ago. You recognize that you’re watching an effect, but the longer the camera stays still, and the longer the family acts calm and tender (offering her a glass of water, asking how she’s doing), the more you embrace the ghost as real. Then a man walks into the room, wearing a cheap gorilla suit (see the zipper), and when he says quietly that he’s a monkey ghost, you believe him too.

The lead character, a sick, dying old man, takes all this in, remembering his time with these people. Yet the past lives of the title are also literal, and unfold on screen periodically; in the film’s most beautiful sequence, Boonmee’s wife and he meet as a princess and a talking catfish. The old woman sees her young self reflected in the water and says, “Deep down, I know that reflection is an illusion”; the catfish/Boonmee responds, “I know that you’re the same person I loved”; she answers, “That’s an illusion too.” Yet we accept her state as real for the same reasons we accept the human and monkey ghosts: They’re real to Boonmee, and even more importantly, real to Apichatpong.

One of the movies’ great powers is to make illusion real. Uncle Boonmee’s action unfolds in Nabua, a former anti-communist region, and the cosmic-thinking Boonmee says he’s sick because he’s killed communists and bugs. Apichatpong has discussed how he sees the process of reincarnation as a metaphor for Thailand’s attempts to deal with its past, and how Boonmee differs from others who try to forget by doing nothing but remembering. Certainly a camera, like Boonmee, can hold onto memory, and summon the political past powerfully—not just through documentary footage (á la festival films Nuremberg and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu), but through entirely new images. At one point, Uncle Boonmee shifts to still frames of monkey ghosts chained by soldiers and led to torture, and we can appreciate these images for themselves while simultaneously considering how more humanoid communist prisoners suffered the same fate in real life.

But Apichatpong’s saying more than that movies can save history. He’s dealing with the ontology of movies themselves. David Fincher’s Zodiac is a cinephilic period piece shot on video, studded with older movie references and allusions, even featuring a scene where characters examine film reels; the total effect is of the present trying to lunge into the past. If Zodiac is the kid, then Uncle Boonmee’s the old guard welcoming it, and looking to the future. Apichatpong shot on Super 16, the same film stock as the TV shows he watched growing up, and each of the film’s reels plays out in the style of a different filmic tradition: documentary, costume drama, even his own previous movies (he describes his steps in a strong CinemaScope interview).

Each of Apichatpong’s first four features—Mysterious Object at Noon (2001), Blissfully Yours (’02), Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century (’06)—were made up of two stories, the second somehow developing and transforming the first. The characters discussed reincarnation openly, and the director helped legitimize it by making it a part of the movie’s structure. Uncle Boonmee—the most recent iteration of an installation, film, and video project the filmmaker is creating about his hometown—has a more linear, unified narrative than his earlier features do, perhaps because this time the film itself is multiple reincarnations.

One of its last sequences suggests Boonmee and his wife as a younger couple in a bar. He gets up, and the shot of her sitting, potentially remembering her other selves (is he the person I loved, or an illusion?) becomes a metaphor for the film. Uncle Boonmees vision of the future comes out of the past—both the stories the director’s family told him growing up, and the stories he absorbed from cinema. With DVD and the increasing availability of films on the Internet, cinema’s past has become a greater part of its future than ever.

Yet even though the movies are alive and well, film itself is turning ghostly. When Apichatpong shows bright purple and blue light shining into a dark room in individual particles, he’s giving particular shades and textures that only film stock can achieve. There have been many gorgeous videos (Zodiac is one), so film isn’t better or worse than other material, just different, in the same way that Boonmee’s catfish form is as valid as his human one—and no matter Boonmee’s form, a loving essence remains. It’s rare for a movie to simultaneously evoke nostalgia and anticipation. The future that Uncle Boonmee suggests is bright.

The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.