The Cinema Primeval
Matt Connolly on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The first time I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I fell asleep. Well, not exactly asleep—more like weaving delicately back and forth between attentiveness and slumber. In fairness, I had my reasons. It was September 2010, and I had been hunkered down in Alice Tully Hall since noon, working my way through screening after screening for that year’s New York Film Festival. By the time Uncle Boonmee began rolling, I had already taken in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro volte, and Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. (Side note: For all those belly-aching about the paucity of quality cinema in recent years, I’d kindly ask them to ponder the aforementioned schedule—all shown on the same day—and see how their “decline of contemporary film” thesis holds up.) The day’s viewing marathon had left me exhilarated but exhausted, and I could feel my eyelids beginning to waver slightly after the film’s one-hour mark. To make matters worse, my fight against dozing coincided with the film’s literally darkest section: a nighttime journey through the tropical forest and into a pitch-black cave, with only faint electric lamps illuminating the way. As the camera journeyed alongside the characters into the shadows, my fatigue hit a peak and I began to drift in and out.

Then, something unexpected happened. As my sight vacillated between wakefulness and somnolence, the film seemingly began to do the same. The camera’s eye—an ambiguously oriented handheld shot studying the cave’s softly glittering walls and small pools of water collecting on the ground—would suddenly fade to darkness for a few moments, while sounds of dripping liquid and ambient rumblings continued on the soundtrack. We then return to the cave and the camera’s inquisitive gaze upon its surfaces. This simple formal element produced within me a moment of dreamy disorientation. Is the image being plunged into darkness because of the camera’s faltering sight or my own? How different is my experience of listening to those trickles of water and low-level hums with my eyes closed and consciousness fading than those wide awake in the theater, similarly plunged into darkness and gazing ahead at a black screen? The confusion was enough to jostle me back to full attention, but those unsettled questions stayed with me throughout the rest of the screening.

I linger on this moment not just to air my film-going dirty laundry in public. (The movie won the Palme d’Or, for chrissakes! Just drink some coffee!) Nor do I want to imply that Uncle Boonmee finds its apotheosis as some kind of art-house white-noise machine, projecting a free-floating ambience into the theater that viewers can bask in without minding the film closely. Rather, I think that the particular manner in which I first viewed the film speaks to a quality within it that continues to haunt and beguile me some three (fully conscious) viewings later: namely, a deep understanding of the indeterminate connection between the structure of the screen image and the nature of semi-conscious experience. The film’s universe resides in a space somewhere between reality and reverie, with mystical sights and uncanny experiences rubbing elbows with the quotidian events and emotions of the everyday. This synthesis occurs not through rib-nudging glibness or arty posturing, but rather an aesthetic of wonderment, warmth, and observation that has no equivalent in the world filmmaking scene. Uncle Boonmee’s loosely explained supernatural elements and extended trips down narrative side-streets may have led some to label the work “difficult” or “baffling.” I don’t disagree with either label, but they only tell half the story. If Apichatpong sketches a bold and brazenly odd vision, he also extends a hand into its singular universe. It’s no accident that the film’s densest collection of bewildering events—a dead wife’s semi-transparent spirit; a lost son transformed into a Sasquatch-like ghost—occurs around the domestic dinner table. In Uncle Boonmee’s world, daily human routines exist in a continuum with the mysteries of reincarnation, cross-species copulation, and the afterlife. Apichatpong’s supreme gift lies in how he makes these seeming polarities not just casually intermingle but also mutually illuminate one another in a manner as sui generis as it is curiously familiar.

In dramatizing this commingling of the ordinary and the inexplicable, Uncle Boonmee treats both with thoughtfulness and serenity. Every event onscreen becomes an opportunity for quiet contemplation. Much of the film takes place on the rural farm of the titular character (Thanapat Saisaymar), a middle-aged widower suffering from acute kidney failure. He spends his final days tending to his honeybees and relaxing with his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Death hovers over Boonmee throughout the film—we see extended scenes of his intravenous fluid bag being emptied by Jaai (Samud Kugasang), a Laotian immigrant who acts as Boonmee’s caretaker—but its presence is simply acknowledged rather than obsessed over. Apichatpong makes equal time for small pleasures and conversational forays: the sampling of fresh honey; memories of past loves and wartime atrocities; extended gazes out the car window. This observational aesthetic does not sound particularly unique to Apichatpong when spelled out on paper. (“Capturing the everyday” has been an art-house trope for about as long as “art-house film” has existed as a category.) What separates Uncle Boonmee lies in the openness that Apichatpong expresses towards his material: the ability to let moments and emotions and sensations pass through the frame without being slotted into any formal floor plan. This is filmmaking without a programmatic agenda, which should not be confused with a lack of aesthetic rigor or thematic control. The result is a cinematic universe of perpetual wonder, in which the confines of the world in front of you keep expanding outwards in surprising new directions.

Occasionally, the result is an emotional sucker punch. Late in the film, Jen contemplates the possibility of making the now-deceased Boonmee a funeral book. She hesitates, admitting finally, “I didn’t know him that well. What would I write about him?” The moment comes as a bit of shock, given both the amount of time we had seen Boonmee and Jen spend together and the easy rapport they seemed to share. But how much do we really know, in the end, about Jen, or Boonmee, or anyone on screen? Apichatpong’s view towards his characters is generous and warm, but also elliptical. He savors the possibility of revealing telling details and emotional nuance while resisting easy psychologizing that would rob the characters of their individuality and mystery.

Strikingly, he treats the film’s forays into the supernatural in much the same fashion. Apichatpong gives both the spirit of Boonmee’s dead wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), a disarming visual tactility—the former appearing via a simple slow dissolve, the latter ascending from the shadows of an outdoor staircase. The viewer senses the physical presence of their bodies (or ephemeral approximation thereof) in space, even as Apichatpong continues to emphasize their uncanny otherness, be it Huay’s semi-transparent skin or Boonsong’s glowing red eyes and tangled fur. The film’s poker-faced acknowledgment of its own oddness gives such encounters a somewhat giggly sense of the absurd, and Apichatpong encourages gentle laughter as a natural response to the incongruous aspects of his universe. These creatures or apparitions never lose their eerie edge, even as the film’s tranquil spirit allows the initial shock of their presence to segue into conversations between them and the living full of humorous banalities and touching questions about their well being in the afterlife. The communing of souls across the span of life and death has rarely felt so free of moist-eyed hokum, so attuned to the simultaneous peculiarity and poignancy of such encounters. The image of Huay silently watching over a sleeping Jen before dematerializing gains its quiet power precisely from this tonal balance—a serene acceptance of the improbable evokes the emotional logic of dreams.

This extends both to other instances of casually unfathomable metamorphoses of the human body—the indescribably stirring image of Jen and Tong suddenly split into two co-existent versions of themselves, one watching television on a hotel bed while the other relaxes in a restaurant—and the film’s forays down seemingly unconnected narrative detours, as seen in the opening meditation on a cow wandering through the jungle while being pursued by its owner. These categories overlap in the much-discussed midfilm plot swerve, when we break entirely from Boonmee and company to track the interspecies copulation between an insecure, facially scarred princess and a kindly, talking catfish. Some have (not unconvincingly) framed these as Boonmee recalling his titular “past lives” and physical manifestations, but the thrill of Apichatpong’s aesthetic lies precisely in their narrative indeterminacy. He releases a series of thematic, formal, and emotional connections into the air, inviting us to bask in twinkling, ephemeral possibilities of meaning without funneling us to circumscribed “readings.”

Such openness extends to the frame itself. Much of Uncle Boonmee unfolds in languorous long takes, with characters reclining on porches or under wooden awnings. Extended duration—both in terms of scenes themselves and the length of the shots filming them—is hardly unique in contemporary international art cinema. Apichatpong, however, views the extended take as both an opportunity for formal elegance and a porous space life can flow in and out of. Images in Uncle Boonmee rarely announce their beauty ostentatiously. The mise-en-scène is striking for the subtle gradations of light, color, and shape that Apichatpong finds within it, even as the spaces themselves remain resolutely tied to the real world. And while he positions individuals within the frame with an eye for visual patterns, they are allowed to move about, to exit the frame, to be individuals existing in time and space. As much as the long-take, long-shot aesthetic dominates within Uncle Boonmee, it will also be abandoned for a heterogeneous mixture of still-image montage, or underwater circular pans, or sonically dense handheld journeys through the jungle. (Though it’s been noted often, it’s worth saying again that his natural soundscapes remain among the richest and most sophisticated in the movies today.) One could simply rattle off the beautiful images found in Uncle Boonmee—the moon as seen through a circular opening in a cave; daylight diffused through a curtain that falls on Jen as she sleeps—but that wouldn’t get at the stylistic experimentation and flexibility that makes his work feel so alive to the moment. He has one of contemporary cinema’s most precise eyes, attuned ears, and receptive minds.

This essay originated when we Reverse Shot writers were asked to reflect on a film from the past decade that gives us hope for the continuation of the cinematic medium. Though the bloviations of certain critics would insinuate otherwise, choosing just one proved pretty difficult. There have been a lot of fantastic movies made and released since the turn of the century—films that have reconfigured established genres, challenged old assumptions, conjured new visions, and fostered emotional epiphanies. It was the decade when a burgeoning twenty-something cinephile like myself discovered just how complicated, enlightening, and soul-stirring going to the movies could be. While I am not unsympathetic to the argument that the present-day movie industry regularly unloads twenty tons of profit-mongering crap upon its viewers, I remain extremely protective of an era that has seen the flowering of movies, directors, and movements to rival some of the supposed “golden ages” of years past.

Despite the decade’s multitude of riches, however, I keep returning to that fateful September night in New York. Many movies expanded my horizons over the past ten to twelve years, but Uncle Boonmee is one of the very few that reminded me, on a fundamental level, why the movies matter to me. The film’s world may have been literally thousands of miles away from my seat at Alice Tully Hall, but its simultaneous exploration and transformation of that universe aligned with my half-conscious state so completely that they became one and the same, if only for a moment. It’s a cinema that rejects the false bifurcation of life documented or transfigured by the camera, one that embraces the inevitable imbrication of both, allowing fantasy and reality, fact and fiction to embrace and became something new. Whenever I become cynical or discouraged about what it means to be a modern cinephile, that film and that moment are enough to keep me exploring, thinking, and watching. The dream isn’t gone. It’s here. You just have to open your eyes.