Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the latest in director Apitchapong Weerasathakul’s series of highly personal abstractions. Challenging and eccentric, to put it mildly, the film is an attempt to capture the fevered visions and visitations of a dying man over the last few days of his life. It also deals with the aftermath of his passing, and a return to the banalities of earthly existence by the grieving survivors. Told with Weerasathakul’s patented meek passivity, Uncle Boonmee confounds expectations at every turn, and uses a mosaic of past and present, flesh and spirit, to contrast the mystical with the mundane.
As Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) struggles with organ failure at his farm in remote northern Thailand, he is visited by a number of family members, both living and – somehow "dead” is not the right word – long departed. As a scrawny cow humorously demonstrates sentient characteristics, even the trees, bushes and livestock at Boonmee’s estate seem to sense an imminent date with the ultimate. A group of ape-ish humanoids with glowing red eyes skulk about the jungle like shy Sasquatches, preparing to escort Boonmee on his upcoming journey. This hairy band is led by a reconstituted fellow named Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) Boomee’s son who has been missing for years.
Meanwhile, Boonmee’s mind begins its own meditative walkabout, attempting to sort and define a life that is drawing to conclusion. At an ancient waterfall, a beautiful princess is seduced by a smooth-talking catfish; their tryst bathed in poetic blue-green moonlight. At Boonmee’s insistence, his family embarks on a spelunking expedition, where deep recesses of solid rock serve as a launch point to a vaporous new dimension.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life deconstructed the boundaries between time and space, while Uncle Boonmee connects planes of existence, creating a reality where people and poltergeists freely intermingle. But Weerasathakul turns the horror film dynamic upside down: his spirits are kindly, but in a condescending sort of way; their temporary return to the physical world a dreaded chore, like a trip to the dentist. But eventually, the goblins depart and life goes on. After a brush with mortality, television shows and hot showers provide solace and a reminder of life’s necessities. Weerasathakul once again uses a Buddhist monk as an unlikely source of comic relief, this time as foil for the glories of hamburgers and karaoke.
Compared to 2007’s Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee seems a lesser work; its palette not quite in Weerasathakul’s comfort zone of quirk. It lacks the absurdist set pieces that made Syndromes such an enjoyable blend of high art and low comedy. But comparing Weerasathakul’s films to each other is a silly enterprise, almost as silly as comparing him to any other director. His mind simply does not work like any other filmmaker's. His ideas are not conceived over long lunches at fashionable L.A. eateries. He doesn’t calculate, or particularly care, how audiences will react to any given scene. He simply proceeds in his quiet, gentle way; reveling in the wonders of existence, the splendors of creation, both in this world and beyond. He does so in ways that often hold deep meaning only for him. And he’s OK with that. Artistically speaking, Apitchapong Weerasathakul has balls the size of your head.