“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” represents the most impressive end result imaginable for a career which has blossomed quietly, enigmatically, and altogether wonderfully over the last decade. During his brief but highly impressive initial run, the film’s director, Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, already revealed a fascination with the spiritual, the metaphysical, and the ideas behind dreams, the afterlife, and ultimately, reincarnation. Apichatpong’s first, “Mysterious Object at Noon,” blended fiction and documentary into a compelling examination of the filmmaking process, and in some ways it serves as a handy analysis of the director’s methods. If that film divulged technique and outlined a kind of hybrid mentality for the director, then his next four films have consistently expanded on these terms, concealing the seams in his aesthetic while provoking discourse on his chosen themes.
Furthering this template, 2002's “Blissfully Yours” is an erotic conflation of the medical and the environmental which disclosed a slightly skewed interest in the physical manifestation of Apichatpong’s characters’ inner plight. But it was with 2005's “Tropical Malady” and 2007's “Syndromes and Century,” which use their multi-pronged looking-glass narratives to finesse transcendental implications from intimate relationship dramas, that the world of these films and the characters that inhabit them began to close in on itself and around them. These are beautiful, enigmatic modern masterpieces, and I bring up their place in Apichatpong’s artistic trajectory not simply because 'Uncle Boonmee' represents the grand reconciliation of all his thematic and aesthetic idiosyncrasies to this point, but because it’s important to note how these films (particularly the last three) speak to and mirror each other’s spiritual concerns.
Uncle Boonmee, the character, was mentioned as far back as “Tropical Malady,” and the corpse seen amidst the Taiwanese landscape at the outset of 'Syndromes' is very likely the remains of the heartbroken soldier who does battle with a shape-shifting shaman in the earlier film. Characters, actors, even animals seem to echo each other in Apitchatpong works; his 'Uncle Boonmee' opens with a magical pre-title sequence in which the audience, depending on their familiarity with these prior films, is asked to either ruminate on the mysterious Thai countryside—which plays host to everything from water buffalo to life-size, fully erect monkey-ghosts—or to appraise the various animals for their potential embodiment of Apichatpong’s prior characters. These parallels and reproductions are less audience-friendly offerings, à la Tarantino and his recurring characterizations and convoluted family trees, and instead further manifestation of the metaphysical concerns of all Apichatpong narratives. In other words, the narrative of 'Uncle Boonmee' is fascinating in relation to what’s come before.
'Uncle Boonmee' is also something close to Apichatpong’s first linear work, at least in as much as it’s the first of his fiction films to proceed through a somewhat traditional three act progression. We soon meet the terminal title character—who’s suffering from kidney failure—and his family as they prepare for the patriarch to pass on in the coming days. From there the film moves from one incredible scene to the next. Early on, the family gathers for what ostensibly may prove to be Boonmee’s final dinner, during which their patio plays host to the surrounding jungle’s personifications of Boonmee’s past; Boonmee's 15-years-dead son soon arrives in the form of a red-eyed human animal, outlining his reincarnation and subsequent transformation while the family, intrigued yet hardly surprised, looks on casually; and the ghost of Boonmee’s wife soon materializes and offers her care for the remainder of her husband’s time on earth in his current form. I’d hate to spoil the magic of this scene, as much of the film’s power lies in unexpected discovery, but suffice it to say this is one of the most haunting sequences I can remember seeing depicted on film. This is also as dramatic a moment as Apichatpong has yet captured, and his deft handling of his material, which could have come across as either unintentionally humorous or as new-age nonsense, is one of the film’s most impressive traits.
Over the course of Boonmee’s final two days, we’re taken far from the confines of the family’s remote lodgings. There’s an equally enigmatic and disquieting aside later on, when Apichatpong recounts a gnomic folk tale in which a talking catfish literally seduces a wandering, troubled princess beside a waterfall. There’s an eerie intangibility (but again, a thematic consistency) to this scene, and those looking for a reason to bail on the film’s obtuse framing may give up for good as the fish eventually parts the thighs of the lavishly adorned princess. This scene also notably begins the film’s slow structural dissolve. I mentioned earlier that this is Apichatpong’s most linear film, and it is, but the existence of a more pronounced denouement doesn’t mean the film plays by any sort of conventional rules regarding narrative closure. After Boonmee and his family embark on a jungle expedition to a distant cave where Boonmee may or may not have began his current existence, the film closes with one of Apichatpong’s most opaque codas. Built around Boonmee’s inevitable funeral, the characters in this sequence idly pass the time watching television, casually leave their bodies to examine their actions from a remove, and generally raise even more questions regarding reincarnation and the elliptical nature of existence.
'Uncle Boonmee' deservedly won the prestigious Palm d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has since become one of the most talked about and debated films on the festival circuit. I happened to see the film at last year’s AFI fest and it left me reeling: its delicate touch, unsettling atmosphere, and mythical allure transfixed me from first frame to last. It’s the single best film I’ve encountered in a number of years and the first unqualified masterpiece I’ve had the privilege of seeing since Jia Zhangke's “Still Life” in 2008 (or perhaps, from a year earlier, Apichatpong’s own “Syndromes and a Century”). Needless to say this is work of a high and near-incomparable order; it's the magical realization of every idea, experiment, and motif that has dotted Apichatpong’s already outstanding career to this point. In a year where we’re being graced with new works from Kiarostami, Malick, Reichardt, Ruiz, and possibly even Jia himself, Apichatpong has set a high bar with "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Knowing what’s on the horizon and being fully aware that it’s not even April yet, I still can honestly say I don’t expect to see a better film released stateside this year. Frankly, I’m scared to even entertain the notion I could be wrong. Your move, 2012. [InRO]