Gilded in the Palme d’Or, and spittle-flecked by word of mouth, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives arrives in New York to colossal expectations. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest feature, his sixth, is more than capable of meeting them. It is spectators who may be unprepared, for it has been a long time since a movie as simultaneously baffling and broadly compelling has found theatrical distribution, and no volume of tasteful cultural packaging can contain its intoxicating effects.
Inspired by a regional Buddhist tract, the film is a series of delirious fugue states strung together along the bones of a story. Uncle Boonmee is a fruit farmer in Isan nearing the final stages of kidney failure. Though prepared to face his death, he is still managing his plot, aided by Lao migrant workers, when his sister-in-law Jen arrives from the city with her son Tong. At dinner they are joined at the table by two apparitions: the ghost of Huay, Boonmee’s deceased wife (and Jen’s sister), who materializes as a gossamer projection of her younger self, and Boonsong, the couple’s long vanished son, who emerges on Boonmee’s terrace as a monkey ghost, a hulking simian creature with incandescent red eyes. Once punctured by metaphysics, the film sloughs off its naturalist facade and is enveloped by fantastical sequences that take place well outside the boundaries of worldly time and space, and whose relation to the story we have been watching is never fully explicated. We see, among other things, an ancient princess penetrated by a talking catfish, a hallucinatory fantasia on Thai political themes in the form of a Chris Marker-like photomontage, and an impressionistic primordial cave scene, before Apichatpong snaps us back to the present for Boonmee’s funeral, which takes place in an urban temple whose neon tableaux and smartphone-bearing monks assert a jarring modernity.
Apichatpong developed Uncle Boonmee out of the Primitive project, a multi-format investigation of life in Isan, the northeasternmost section of Thailand. Alongside the semi-professional cast’s understated, familiar dynamics, it is Apichatpong’s attention to this region’s particularities that tethers Uncle Boonmee’s mystical flights to an apprehensible context. From its opening frames, the film registers before all else as a feat of lavish cinematic beauty, and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s lush and labile camerawork is premised on a deep communion with Northeastern Thailand’s unique topography. The film’s intense blue-green color palette is sapped straight from the subtropical foliage that surrounds Boonmee’s farm, and its dramatic play of light mimics the natural state of a terrain situated between looming mountains and the overgrown jungle. It is easy to imagine ghosts lurking within these shadowy landscapes, and history has stocked them with the necessary corpses. Boonmee is haunted not only by deceased loved ones, but also by the Communist guerillas he killed in the 1960s on behalf of the Thai government during their campaign to purge leftist insurgents from Isan, the one Thai region in which they ever had a serious presence. Even Boonmee’s dreams—one of which he describes late in the film, accompanied by a series of arresting still photographs—have been infected by Thailand’s militaristic nationalism.
It was also Isan’s tradition of visionary, animist-inflected Buddhism that provided Apichatpong the tales he adapted for Uncle Boonmee. But though this source and the film’s title proffer a metempsychotic alibi for Uncle Boonmee’s passages through the ineffable, none of the onscreen episodes can be understood solely as Boonmee’s recollections of past lives. His role in these visions is never denoted. For us, he is less a protagonist than a central consciousness, whose faith, personal memories, historical position, and geographic station collude to give form to the mystical energies from which the visions issue. This is not a devotional fable, but its converse: an account of the kind of ecstatic spiritual experience that religious doctrine can only hope to delimit.
Apichatpong guides us into the recesses of mystery with a sensuous, responsive style that alternately sets and dissolves the narrative bond with equally fluid grace. He gives us none of the dopey vagaries or belabored rationalizations that tend to mar filmic testimony of the divine, but instead summons a profound kind of formalism in which the gap between cuts takes on all the gnawing mystery of that between life and the hereafter. Apichatpong has yet to make a bad film, but he has never before demonstrated such immense negative capability. In a manner reminiscent of David Lynch at his best, he here channels the uncanny images of his subconscious and arranges them in a composition that hits the right structural beats without overwhelming their irrational purity.
Despite its metaphysical ambitions, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is anything but remote. “How can you live here surrounded by ghosts and immigrants?” Jen asks Boonmee. The supernatural intrudes, but life goes on. Instead of hushed reverence, the film’s revelations of becoming are met with the same laughter, sadness, and anxiety that fill every other day on earth. The quotidian is an enigma no less awesome than the transcendental, and Uncle Boonmee holds them together in a single, quavering vision.