Apichatpong Weerasethakul sees all sorts of beings in the jungle. He hears their cries, studies their footprints, and tracks their desires. But instead of positioning these supernatural urges and symbols within a familiar art-house construct, the master Thai filmmaker relishes their company in elongated set pieces, watching the many possibilities slowly crawl through his densely layered compositions and sound design. In this sense, his is a cinema of spirits, but also their human reflections, a parallel relationship built on the foundation of mythology and spirituality. Weerasethakul’s latest treasure Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives played a late-night screening during the stretch run of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, providing local cinephile’s a rare theatrical window into the director’s challenging and beautiful headspace.
The film begins in the darkness, where a water buffalo unhinges its rope string and walks freely into the jungle. The space doesn’t just echo with noises of the night; these audible cues beckon the animal toward someplace new and staggering. Then, the silhouette of an upright beast fills the frame, its blood-red eyes piercing deep into the lens. A rare day shot follows, bringing relatives to the titular Boonmee’s (Thanapat Saisaymar) house for a family reunion of sorts. Boonmee doesn’t let a failing kidney stop him from hosting a small gathering, and this dinner scene transitions the film from a natural tone to mysteriously poetic.
As memories of past traumas and disappointment begin to literally take shape and arrive at Boonmee’s table, one character lovingly muses, “Ghosts aren’t attracted to places, but to people.” This begins a long and winding examination of the overlap between the spirit world and the physical one, not a new theme for Weerasethakul. But in Uncle Boonmee, the filmmaker takes us somewhere new, a fluid place where the wind in the trees communicates lessons about regret and the howls of a “ghost monkey” chart a lifetime of conflicted experiences coming to a head. The specifics of these memories remain muted, but Boonmee’s sublime conversations with his relatives Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) allow the essential human doubts and realizations to compliment the film’s intricate treatment of physical and audible space.
During the film’s most haunting sequence, Weerasethakul flashes back to the story of an ancient princess disfigured by some accident or disease who finds passionate inspiration in the form of a talking catfish. Her slow jaunt through the jungle, carried by a legion of shirtless studs, evokes the feel of a classic period piece. When one of these handsome men attempts to seduce the princess by the side of the lake we expect her to melt into his arms. But the classically lighted sequence takes a sobering and confounding turn when she denies him for the truthful aquatic animal. This allegory about reflections and parallel selves connects brilliantly with Boonmee’s slow march into the spirit world, creating a subtext of lost souls that transcends boundaries of time and space. This type of narrative deconstruction remains a staple for Weerasethakul, but something about the temporal jump in Uncle Boonmee feels completely fresh.
We rarely consider life and death standing side by side because the overlap is uncomfortable to fathom. But Uncle Boonmee is the rare film that positions each as moving parts of the same methodology. This explains why the film is able to create such a wise friendship between characters representing both sides, a discourse that disavows fear and celebrates the layers of expression. During Boonmee’s penultimate experience with the physical world, encapsulated in a hallucinatory trek through a deep cave, we feel his pull toward something majestic in the darkness. The crystals splattered over the cave walls form a stellar map for Boonmee’s slide from one side of consciousness to the other, and it represents just another brilliant detail Weerasethakul affords his characters in their final waking moments.
Uncle Boonmee ends with an audacious twist in perspective, but one that supplements its themes of shared memories and regrets. “With the natural world matters never cease to surprise,” and this agile outlook on human interaction shows Weerasethakul as a filmmaker obsessed by the idea that multiple planes can exist simultaneously without devouring each other. It turns out the ghosts in the shadows and the monsters with red eyes aren’t horrific enemies, but different versions of our best and worst selves, and we should savor their company too.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs from October 21 to 28. For more information, click here.