Thursday, March 10, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing, 2010)
            As westerners, we must be careful about foreign imagery. We must be able to separate the exotic from the merely unfamiliar. A shot of sun rays streaming through a tangled jungle scene might fool us in to thinking its exotic, but it’s really just unfamiliar to people who do not live near a jungle. Seeing a ghost appear at a dinner table and stick around for much of the film, on the other hand, blurs the line; we have seen ghosts in plenty of films, but never in such a central, casual, presentation. Is that unfamiliar, exotic, or truly weird?
            Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker behind the films Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady, knows the difference and likes it both ways. When a film asks you to identify with a stranded bull in the first scene, you know you are in the territory of general unfamiliarity. This is the prologue to a story, itself blurry and unclassifiable, that encompasses the dying Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), his wife, and his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) who cares for him. Various friends and family members show up throughout, and it is in the details of these characters that the film goes in to wild. Boonmee’s dead daughter, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) appears as an apparition at dinner, and stays with the family for one last haul. Boonmee’s long lost son turns up, as a half-man, half-monkey, and recounts, over shots of leaping monkeys and fading sunlight, how he mated with a monkey-ghost and ran off with her, turning in to one himself. It is one of the many folkloric segments of the film that also include a princess copulating with a talking catfish and a dream sequence set in the future, shot in still photographs.
(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing)
These pieces of the film are Weerasethekul working at the level of hypnotism, his strongest ground. He has seemingly adapted the methods of Sergei Paradjanov and Chris Marker, but they were self-conscious and technically obsessed directors. As a director, Weerasethakul is not self-conscious, not quite a surrealist, nor a technician of any sort; he is something like a guider of meditations. As Boonmee and his family stumble through a cave, a flashlight spotting engravings, inlets of water, and bare stones, we might feel like we are falling asleep. But we don’t fall asleep; our eyes stay on the screen, even tighter as the scene shifts back to the sun-spotted jungle. This is the aim of his direction; folkloric hypnotism, relaxing the viewer as a way of gaining their trust. So far, Weerasethakul has been able to make it work in each of his films.
(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing, 2010)

Most remarkable is that Weerasethakul’s fantastic indulgences are moderated and un-showy. We are never led to believe we are watching anything but a film (this isn’t a real Thai folktale, people), and his characters are people first and symbols later. Their poor French makes their friends laugh; they talk about flirting with girls with their aunts and wartime regrets; they listen to Thai rock music. This is, perhaps, another way in which Weerasethakul gains his audience’s trust, but it also underscores how risky his exotic and unfamiliar imagery has become. A mere walk through a jungle is fascinating to these Anglo-Saxon eyes. Even the Thai alphabet, with its letters that resemble tangles of roots and ancient sketches, is wondrous to glimpse. So if it doesn’t matter which imagery is truly exotic and which is just unfamiliar, if we are entranced by it all, what happens when we get used to it? Weerasethakul has bet the entirety of Uncle Boonmee on this enchantment, and won for now, but had the film been any longer we might have gone from hypnotically sleepy to actually tired. Weerasethakul has to be at least as careful a filmmaker as we must be as viewers, or he might become a has-been of foreign cinema in ten years. It is this creeping suspicion that does not allow Uncle Boonmee to live up to Syndromes and a Century or Tropical Malady (which had a tighter, more disciplined structure). But, largely because of his true foreign-ness, he has earned his title as an astonishing memory creator; one who lets us sort those memories out on our own, trying to make sense of them.
Those memories include a picnic on a farm surrounded by tropical vegetation; that was unfamiliar. A woman sleeping on a bed with a white silk sheet draped over it as the sunlight shines through in pink rays; that was exotic, perhaps too exotic. A man in a monkey suite posing with soldiers in a still photograph, barren plains surrounding them, was unfamiliar. A monk, a girl, and an older woman staring at a T.V screen blasting news of national unease—what was that?
(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing, 2010)