What's the big obstacle to Apichatpong Weerasethakul becoming a household name for the global arthouse crowd? I've just said it. Has any contender for cine-canonization had such a jawbreaking moniker? I question whether even Thais have an easy time with it. Look at what another Thai did for comparison's sake. Panom Yeerum is more modestly named for starters. He might even have gotten by abroad with that tag, but as Tony Jaa he's instantly recognizable by martial-arts buffs around the world. But I suppose an auteur representing the high end of the Thai film industry shouldn't be expected to make such compromises. And in any event Weerasethakul has his shot now after his latest film, Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, won the Palm d'Or at last year's Cannes film festival. He'd had a kind of cult following already, with some people regarding his Syndromes and a Century as one of the best films of the last decade. I'd given that film a shot, but I regret to admit that I quit a little past the halfway point, once it seemed determined to go nowhere. By now I think I'm a little less impatient for every film to "go" someplace, and the Golden Palm entitled Weerasethakul to another chance from me.
Tim Burton chaired last year's Cannes jury, and the supernatural content of Uncle Boonmee may have influenced his choice, though Weerasethakul's approach to such material isn't entirely like Burton's. In the Thai film, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a widowed farmer dying of kidney failure, tended by an assistant who may be, like many of Boonmee's workers, an illegal immigrant from Laos. As an opening title explains, while contemplating his imminent death, Boonmee does, in fact, recall some past lives. A pre-credits sequence illustrates the power of suggestion. We see a water buffalo wandering the landscape after escaping from a noose and likely slaughter. Because we've been prompted to assume that this is Boonmee in a past life, we're more attentive to the beast's adventure, if it can be called that, than we would be otherwise.
Boonmee doesn't actually do much past-life recalling afterward as Weerasethakul focuses on a present-day visit by the farmer's sister-in-law Jen and her son Thong. There's a lot of realistically banal small talk as the visitors unpack and Boonmee gets his kindey drained. The director's approach is neorealistic, favoring long takes to create the illusion of immersion in authentic life. The family regathers at the dinner table and chatters away while a woman slowly materializes beside them.
The woman is Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), Boonmee's late wife. She isn't Boonmee's delusion; his relatives react to her appearance and join him in striking up a fresh conversation with the new visitor, none of them alarmed by the presence of a ghost among them. They're hardly more fazed when a noise from downstairs is followed by the appearance of a pair of glowing red eyes in the dark stairwell. A wookie-looking fellow appears and announces himself as Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), Boonmee's long-lost son who disappeared in the forest years ago. He brings his father up to date, explaining that he turned into a monkey man after falling in love with a monkey woman. Mother and son were both drawn home, presumably, by Dad's own impending demise. Like a good host, Boonmee breaks out the photo album to get his guests up to date on life on the farm.
This is probably the make-or-break scene for most viewers. I was intrigued (as I suspect Burton was) by the utterly matter-of-fact way in which Boonmee receives his spectral guests, but I felt that I didn't have enough information about Thai culture to guess the point of the apparently purposeful banality of the scene. Wikipedia informs me that Boonmee is part of an ongoing project in which Weerasethakul will chronicle in depth the northeastern Isan region of Thailand, but what, if anything, does the characters' reaction to the ghosts and monsters tell us about Isan? Would the people there really react that way if they saw ghosts? Do they claim to have seen ghosts, and to have reacted that way? Don't know, don't know and don't know.
Fortunately, enough's going on in Boonmee to invite alternate readings of the ghost scenes. For instance, I inferred a parallel between the character's bland welcome to the supernatural and Boonmee's blithe indifference to the legal status of a different class of strangers, the illegal immigrants who work for him. Later in the movie, Weerasethakul seems to invite a comparison of the spirit world from which Huay and Boonsong come with the spirit world of television that captivates Jen in a hotel room. Jen herself becomes a kind of spirit in a late scene when she splits in two, one Jen going out with an AWOL monk, the other staying in the hotel room to watch TV. Something is probably being said here about our divided consciousness and the different planes of existence we inhabit simultaneously, but that's just a guess I'm making.
Weerasethakul has said that Boonmee is a film purposefully made in a medley of cinematic styles. That explains some of the gratuitous elements in it, including the movie's most artistically ambitious sequence, a mythological episode in which a princess makes love with a catfish in the middle of a stream. Is Boonmee the princess or the fish? Search me, but the sequence is brilliantly done, revealing that the relatively primitive approach of other episodes is a conscious directorial choice. More gratuitous still is an anecdote told by Boonsong of his capture by a mysterious band of soldiers. Related entirely through stills, it's an obvious homage to Chris Marker's La Jetee, but to what purpose?
Uncle Boonmee is like a portfolio of Weerasethakul's virtuosity submitted for global acceptance. There's a showiness to some of it at the cost of a greater rigor that I recognized, though I didn't exactly appreciate it, in Syndromes and a Century. The director's strategy dooms Boonmee to be less than the sum of its parts, but the sum is actually pretty impressive on its own. You do get the sense that you've been let into an alien culture, even if you don't comprehend it fully, and Weerasethakul's default long-take, immobile-camera approach works to achieve verisimilitude amid the phantasmagoria. If you can enjoy a movie, like I can, as an opportunity for virtual tourism, you'll probably dig a lot of Boonmee, and it may give you some food for thought as well. It's not a great film in my opinion, but an interesting film will often do just fine.
Thanks to Cannes, Uncle Boonmee may be playing in a big city near you. Here's a trailer for it uploaded to YouTube, appropriately enough, by trailers.