One of cinema’s most rewarding, universal measures of success is its ability to let viewers experience some aspect of life through a different lens. Foreign films are naturally suitable vehicles for this deceptively unassuming mission, but Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) stands apart by completely transforming one’s entire perspective and way of thinking. Weerasethakul saves English-speaking Americans like myself the trouble of mispronunciation by adopting the nickname “Joe,” yet his magnum opus remains unabridged, likely prompting even Thailand’s natives to reconsider the ways they approach existence and the afterlife. Joe truly embraces his title as an independent filmmaker by assuming an outsider’s vantage point that allows for a more inquisitive look at the subject. Thanks to this unparalleled directorial style, Uncle Boonmee communicates the utility of a dialectical understanding, or simultaneously holding multiple contradictory ideas, such that life’s ebbs and flows are reincarnated in a final synthesis of the two.
Without spoon-feeding spectators in an overtly proselytizing manner, Uncle Boonmee manages to distill the complexity of reincarnation by transcending realms that are often held as impermeable. The camera withholds a clear demarcation between the titular character’s experiences with the spiritual and the physical as he prepares himself for death, naturally predisposing audiences to contemplate that which lies beyond the mundane. Reincarnation certainly plays a significant role in the narratives and identities, but the film more notably undergoes reanimation by taking on different forms in the eyes of the viewer. In a somewhat ghostly fashion, the film manifests itself at various stages of the viewing activity, haunting spectators long after its conclusion but ultimately encouraging them to appreciate the dichotomous nature of existence. One is bound to formulate such “posthumous” responses to Uncle Boonmee using phrases like “at the same time” or “that being said,” for which the fluidity of the inherent dialectical approach is responsible.
The spiritual film satisfies those content with critical interpretation following its conclusion by refusing to adhere to linear plotlines, even while offering glimpses of concrete insights. Dialectics, by nature, is predicated on the fact that complex ends often require intricate means, so it is only fitting for the juggling between conflicting truths to culminate in a resolution while accompanying the non-linear ambiguity. Uncle Boonmee practically forces filmgoers lulled by the familiarity of easy-to-follow stories to abandon this temptation and instead engage in a different kind of narrative. By uniting the unknown with the known and allowing the two to reach a whole that far exceeds the mere sum of its parts, the film metamorphoses into something far more visionary with respect to both scope and feeling.
Uncle Boonmee expands upon this already far-reaching field of vision with the help of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s exquisite camerawork – Joe’s channel of choice in communicating his nostalgia for using actual film over digital. The film’s different reels each follow one of several identifiable aesthetics: “old cinema,” “documentary style,” “costume drama,” and, in the director’s own words, “my kind of film when you see long takes of animals and people driving.” Viewers are quite literally taking up new perspectives by experiencing Uncle Boonmee, a film disinterested in subscribing only to one cinematic format but opting instead to explore the full breadth of an art waning in prevalence. Film, as opposed to digital photography, has been reincarnated under the guise of Joe’s tactics bent on the awareness that people, places, and things never really die. In fact, their existence will always remain in context.
That Joe strives to go against the grain is no surprise and, considering the repressive approval codes of Thai authorities, his rebellion is a necessary testament to the artistic wonders possible when resisting efforts to silence creative expression. Just as Uncle Boonmee’s production protests against this sterilization of borderline-controversial content, the technical choice to eschew flashy digital effects subverts audience expectations with a low-key acknowledgement of the depicted spirits. Pandering to contemporary notions of mystical creatures would only defeat the purpose underlying the film’s ground-breaking technique, whereby its anti-climactic introductions to beings of some bygone era represent the porous, thin line separating past and present. Forward-thinking with regards to progressive actions against censorship but reminiscent of a simpler time of no-frills special effects, Uncle Boonmee plays with the concept of time and stretches our imagination where timelessness transmigrates into timeliness.
One can almost always anticipate the rationale behind a movie’s reception at award ceremonies, but Uncle Boonmee shies away from the fulfillment of any formulaic guarantee for gold, fully deserving the Palme d’Or for its surprising treatment of socially relevant material. The through-line connecting Joe’s more than impressive repertoire, including his multi-platform art project “Primitive,” is an exploration of extinction within a sociocultural context of the Nabua region’s violent campaign against communism. Time is of the essence for these eternal questions that force us to confront how facts not only fail to paint the entire picture, but actually distort the humanity of the portrait. Come afterlife or rebirth on earth, strange animals and other living things take us from “I can’t imagine…” to “I can imagine…,” as sympathetic idioms are supplanted by an empathetic understanding that only a film like Uncle Boonmee can provide.