By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who turns 40 in July, began making feature films 11 years ago in 2000. Working outside the Thai studio system, he quickly established himself as an artistic maverick, with films rich in light and spirit.
Their literal meanings sometimes remained ambiguous, but the distinctive vision and his endearing heart made him one of the most interesting directors on the planet.
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Pasts Lives,” his latest film, won the Palm d’Or, the highest honor bestowed by the world-famous Cannes Film Festival. As with his previous works, mystery abounds.
But even more than his previous work, “Uncle Boonmee” feels like an emotionally cohesive whole. Its grounding in its love for its characters, and for life, along with a stunning visual sense, compels the viewer past the enigmas within the story.
Uncle Boonmee himself (played by Thanapat Saisaymar) is a bee keeper and farmer, with land in the Thailand countryside. As the film opens, he’s recovering from a serious surgery. The people around him keep telling him he’ll get better. But Uncle Boonmee does not believe them. He matter-of-factly accepts that his life will soon come to an end.
Surrounding Uncle Boonmee are his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), Jen’s friend Roong (Kanokporn Thongaram), and Boonmee’s trusted servant Jai (Samud Kugasang). All three attend to Uncle Boonmee and accompany him to the dinner table when he’s well enough to eat meals sitting upright. They also bring their own agendas and emotional baggage to Boonmee’s farm. Their stories sometimes threaten to overwhelm the main narrative.
A film about a dying man losing his mobility and constitution by degree might have been dreary and confined to a bedroom. But Weerasethakul has never been a conventional filmmaker. Indeed, one early scene in the film shows Boonmee’s assistants opening every single window in his bedroom until it is flooded with sunlight. The director, aided by his cinematographers Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, worships light throughout the film’s length.
As Weerasethakul explained to the “Bangkok Post,” he assembled “Uncle Boonmee” into six reels, using 16 mm film, a format he learned to love during his childhood. Each reel runs roughly 20 minutes, and he took advantage of these 20-minute markers to set off different styles of filmmaking.
As a result, some segments of the film look fairly realistic, and others delve deeply into the fantastic. Some hew to the main story line, others wander pretty far afield.
The nucleus of the farm gathering, of Uncle Boonmee, and the well-wishers with him, always comes back into focus. But the surrounding material embellishes the feel of that central story, and at the same time, adds its own resonances.
“Uncle Boonmee” may never be a hit in Weerasethakul’s native country, where his films tend to be shunned and sometimes censored. It might very well confuse Western viewers, too. But cinema, like all art, needs creators unafraid to ask new questions and make new connections.
“Uncle Boonmee,” for those willing to brave it, poses and presents plenty of both. ♦
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” plays June 17 through June 30 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue in Seattle. For showtimes, prices, and directions, call 206-829-7863 or visit www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/1789.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.