Spirits co-exist with the living in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.
The opening prologue to Uncle Boonmee ends on the image of a shadowed animalistic creature staring out from the humid forrest, its glowing red eyes penetrating the soul of the viewer. It's an image unlike any the cinema has seen before, and will likely never be seen again. In the accompanying sleeve notes The Memory Of Nubia, by Weerasethakul himself, the filmmaker recalls the teachings of a monk he once met who had to say of ghosts that they will only appear under certain conditions - "when it is not quite dark and not quite light." These are the conditions of Uncle Boonmee's world, and the space it unfolds in. Time as a specific does not matter (ghosts have no concept of it), but spiritual happenings occur at "the break of dawn and twilight." They happen at a time when the world lays still and listens, for only the creations of mother nature are alive at this time - the wind blowing through the trees, and the sound of crickets reverberating through a dense landscape. It's almost as if Uncle Boonmee takes place on a parallel plane of existence... its depth of feeling reaches beyond the understanding of humans, and the existential themes of the film are scarily complex, questioning a core belief system. "Heaven is overrated" says Huay, a returning ghost. And why wouldn't it be? What is there to do for eternity?
So many films that tackle the subject of death do so with matter-of-fact bleakness, and deal with the emotions of the surrounding characters whose lives we will continue watching. Uncle Boonmee is a film which embraces death conceptually and celebrates its future possibilities; the story of the dying man does not end in a casket, for this is where another life begins. How can such a subject be treated so matter-of-factly, Weerasethakul seems to be asking, when there are no proven lines between this life and the next, or if such an otherworld exists? Uncle Boonmee introduces us to characters who have lived past lives, or are currently dead. Boonmee himself, who passes away in the final third of the film, reappears to his family and friends. He did not fear his demise. In fact, traveling to the starry caves in the forrest ("it's like a womb"), he has wished for it. "It's time" he says, and his passing is just as beautiful and hypnotic as his earlier recollection of life as a princess, whose questions of eternity are answered in a semi-religious experience with a wise catfish. She offers her jewelry to him in return for answers. She makes love to the catfish and as her body pulses in the water, moving to his rhythms, one gets the sense that she is transcending this world.
But thematic critical essaying is really the last thing Uncle Boonmee needs, for the experience of watching it is a spiritual one, and one which relies on atmosphere. Diegetic sound informs the painterly landscape of this world, and there is a rhythm formed in the score (the slow beating of a tribal drum), the sound of crickets, and the breathing of the characters in isolated moments of silence. It's a meditative film; one which absorbs you. It's not a film which ponders great themes, and I get the feeling Weerasethakul is not interested in intellectual deconstruction. Indeed, I attended an existentialism lecture at 2010's LFF, and although the subject interests him it does so in a humanist way. He is concerned with the preciousness and fragility of life, and the importance of the individuals place in this world. He never lectures, but presents ideas to the viewer. As I said in my original review (and my initial assessment, so forgive the repetition), the film consists of "questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic." It's a film which requires patience and intelligence, empathy and faith. Keep an open mind and you'll likely be rewarded... cinema rarely presents such an enlightened path.
The film looks gorgeous on Blu Ray, capturing the light of dawn and twilight perfectly. You can literally see the heat rising in an early scene, and the glittering cave towards the finale is a sight to behold. At certain points you can actually see the sweat on the brow of the characters, and the radiant daytime sun feels so natural you can almost feel the heat. It's probably the most impressive film I've seen on the format so far. In 5.1 Surround Sound you also get the most out of the layered sound design. At one point I heard the noise of insects coming from the corner of my room, and the steady breeze fluttering from the other side. Ironically, considering how cinematic the film is, it may be best watched in the warmth and confines of your own living room. Watch it in the dead of night with the volume turned up and just allow yourself to be absorbed by its atmospheric world...
There are three extras on the disc, alongside the accompanying booklet and obligatory trailer. They consist of a typically informative 16-minute interview with Weerasethakul (spoken in English), 26 minutes of deleted scenes and a short film entitled A Letter To Uncle Boonmee (2009), running at 17 minutes. This final feature is perhaps the most interesting of all. It's not really as fleshed out as you'd like but it serves as an interesting companion piece to the main film, mainly comprised of monologged fictional letters based on Weerasethakul's experience looking for the real Uncle Boonmee, as the film is based on a semi-real story documented in the book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives. There are plenty of uncut long shots and beautiful images, but it feels undercooked as a concept.