The jungle has been prominently featured in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s last three films. Blissfully Yours, his second film, finds its characters spending an afternoon in the woods. A soldier’s romance with a local man takes a mystical turn in Tropical Malady when one of them turns into a tiger spirit in the jungle. The first half of his 2006 masterpiece Syndromes and a Century is set in a rural hospital, which is inspired by his parents’ love story, while the second half mirrors the first in a modern city hospital. Having grown up in northeastern Thailand, the rural and most tropical part of the country, Apichatpong always finds the spirit of his cinema in the mystifying sounds of the tropics and the never-ending lushness of its intertwining trees.
In his latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong revisits his roots again and pays tribute to his beloved region. The 2010 Palme d’Or winner is the centerpiece of Apichatpong’s multi-platform project, Primitive, which also includes two short films— A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua— and a series of video installations. The two short films can be watched (for free) on Animate Project’s website, though the video installations are only available to participating museums and galleries. The films, as a collection, are meant to recall the collective memories of the northeastern part of Thailand, especially the village of Nabua, where the bloody military crackdown on communists and innocent farmers from the ‘60s to the ‘80s had left a trail of torture, rapes and killings that Apichatpong fears will soon be forgotten by his compatriots. During that time, many men hid in the jungle to escape from the military, leaving most women and children behind. Interestingly, there is also an ancient legend in the region about a ghost who abducts the men who enter her empire, giving the area the nickname “widow town.”
With all that said, the Primitive project is hardly political at all. Apichatpong immerses the memories of the village and its people into his own cinematic fantasies. The strange beauty of a group of teenagers kicking a soccer ball on fire in Phantoms of Nabua is the kind of stuff one would expect from an apocalyptic Scandinavian horror film. The nightmarish action takes place in front of a makeshift screen on which moving images of lightning is projected. In A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, the camera glides through an empty house in a series of tracking shots as two different voices repeat the same voiceover, which is the content of a symbolic letter from the filmmaker to Uncle Boonmee. Between the self-referencing voiceover and the change of camera lens happening blatantly in the middle of a shot, it is clear that the short is about the filmmaking process as much as it is about Nabua’s haunted history.
Uncle Boonmee, the feature film, is comparatively more subdued in its cinematic references, leaving room for a more narrative-aided experience. The film is by no means driven by a narrative, which only serves as a loose framework for Apichatpong to submerge his audience to his dreamscape. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is slowly dying of kidney failure, journeys back to his farm in the border town of Nabua with his Laotian servant Jaai, his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her assistant Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). At the dinner table, Boonmee’s dead wife (and Jen’s sister), Huay, appears as a ghost. Before the shock of sighting a ghost has the chance to subside, a Chewbacca-looking creature with piercing red eyes walks into the room (presumably from the jungle) and claims to be Boonmee’s son Boonsong, who disappeared in the woods years ago. According to this hairy fellow, he became obsessed with the monkey ghost while he was honing the art of photography in the jungle, which ended with him mating with it and becoming one of them, thus explaining his disappearance. Perhaps Boonsong’s story is a cautionary tale of artistic obsession in the weirdest realm. I can only imagine what would become of today’s DSLR wedding photographers.
Fantastically, Uncle Boonmee has even more eccentric tales in store for its audience. In the film’s most beautifully composed sequence, a princess, who we can assume is one of Boonmee’s past lives (and the cow in the film’s beginning must be another), is carried by her servants to a secluded lake under a waterfall in the wilderness. Tormented by her unsightly appearance, the weeping princess is seduced by a talking catfish that results in the oddest human sacrifice in motion picture history. The scene is incredibly funny and amusing, as Apichatpong’s oddball humor often reminds us of how grounded and unpretentious his films are. The Thai filmmaker, who had made an exploitation film (The Adventures of Iron Pussy) with a transvestite secret agent as the protagonist, is masterful in mixing populist charm with high art in his work. His mise en scène is unabashedly high-minded and atmospheric but nevertheless reeks of folklore and camp. Though the film is inspired by a book given to him by a monk about a man who remembers all his past lives as happened in northeast Thailand, it inescapably transforms into a very personal film for Apichatpong, who identifies strongly with culture of the rural region.
Speaking of transformation, reincarnation is central to Boonmee’s existential angst. As his days are numbered, Boonmee wonders if his time in the military killing communists has caused bad karma that led to his illness. He also questions if killing the bugs in his farm has contributed to his karma (which does not sound ridiculous to a hardcore Buddhist because all life forms are sacred to them since a human could have reincarnated to be a bug). Is his undoing the consequence of his actions in this life or is it the sour fruit carried over from one of his past lives? Meanwhile, Jen comforts him by saying that it’s all about his intentions. And she probably means it too because she has no problem with stepping on the insects that had caused her a mild annoyance. Apichatpong avoids drawing straight conclusion to the differences in ideology, but it is quite clearly that Jen and Tong represent more of his own beliefs in the film’s cryptic ending. Regardless of the filmmaker’s personal beliefs, the film is clear on how the cycle of life repeats itself one reincarnation after another, just like how the legend of “widow town” had come into the form of communist witch-hunting in the 1960s. Ironically, Uncle Boonmee premiered at Cannes 2010 as violent civil unrests erupted in Apichatpong’s native country, echoing the ghost of Nabua’s past.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is playing at the MFAH on 8/5 (7:00pm), 8/6 (7:00pm) and 8/7 (5:00pm). (It is also available on DVD)