Animism, apparitions, out-of-body experiences, sex with a catfish — there’s all that and more in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s wonderfully nutty “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” More readily accessible than his previous films in its dreamlike vignette structure, yet even more resistant to concrete interpretation, this latest deadpan enigma is unlikely to significantly broaden the singular Thai filmmaker’s commercial following. But critics, cinephiles and programmers will be enraptured, as will viewers adventurous enough to surrender to the film’s Buddhist rhythms, mythical underpinnings and mesmeric images, ensuring a narrow but rich future life for “Uncle Boonmee.”
Pic was loosely drawn from a book of stories by a Buddhist abbot in Weerasethakul’s hometown, the northeast Thai city of Khon Kaen, where the film was shot; it also reps a feature-length companion-piece to Weerasethakul’s 17-minute short “A Letter to Uncle Boonmee,” which screened as part of his 2009 “Primitive” art installation.
The film’s mouthful of a title amusingly suggests the helmer’s own willingness to meander, but it also establishes his preoccupation with overt themes of spiritualism and reincarnation, in a way that’s uncharacteristically direct and strangely inviting. There’s a matter-of-factness to the magic here, as “Uncle Boonmee” plays freely with all manner of talking animals and otherworldly visitors without ever feeling the need to rationalize their existence.
After a gentle prologue in which a buffalo runs across a broad plain, we meet Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, a roof-welder making his feature acting debut), who’s undergoing dialysis treatments for kidney failure, and his caretaker sister-in-law, Jen (Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas).
With Boonmee nearing the end of his life, his veranda becomes a meeting place for spirits from his past: first the ectoplasm of his beloved wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), then his long-lost son, now a “monkey ghost” (in darkness, he appears as a pair of red eyes; in the light, he resembles Bigfoot). These beings have come to watch over Boonmee and presumably usher him onward, at which point the film becomes (if it wasn’t already) a meditation on his many past lives.
Weerasethakul’s prior two features, “Tropical Malady” and “Syndromes and a Century,” were both radically bisected in such a way that each half provided a subliminal commentary on the other. “Uncle Boonmee” departs from that mold, leapfrogging without explanation from one serene reverie to the next. While the result is pretty much the definition of a film that should be experienced, not explained, there’s no sense here that Weerasethakul is being difficult for difficult’s sake, or even attempting to conceal his mysteries.
One sequence finds a beautiful princess borne in a glittering carriage to a waterfall, where she strikes up a conversation with an amorous catfish, culminating in what’s sure to be the film’s most talked-about image, yet one that in no way seems calculated to shock. More opaque is a series of still photographs of young men in army fatigues, a reminder of Thailand’s compulsory military service and painful legacy of war violence.
Even with its sad moments, the film continually mines a rich vein of oddball humor, whether it’s a shot of a monk (Sakda Kaewbuadee) checking his cell phone or a line of dialogue (“Why did you grow your hair so long?” someone asks the monkey god). Late passages transition from the first half’s various rural idylls into more clinical interiors, setting up the film’s final fillip.
Pic is framed mostly in long and medium shots by a trio of cinematographers (led by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) whose nighttime sequences are their forte. Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design and Lee Chatametikool’s editing provide abrupt aural disjunctions, cutting from overpowering jungle sounds to restive silence.