Saturday, May 21, 2011

114. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Loong Boonmee raleuk chat” (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) (2010): Layers of freewheeling thoughts that include philosophy, nature, politics, and life’s contradictions, crossing borders of time, life and death, illusion and reality

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is no ordinary movie. It contains a mix of age old wisdom and modern politics, the latter hidden cleverly to avoid the wrath of the Thai censors. It presents Buddhist concepts where the religion exhorts the believer to choose non-violence and abstain from killing living things. In another dimension, the movie is also an ode to nature and the Asian belief in cyclical reincarnation of souls in different life forms over time. In yet another dimension, it is also a film that often connects and refers to a region in Thailand called Nabua that had seen violent rule by Thai armed forces for three decades in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. It is most of all, a modern film that recalls the grammar of a Terrence Mallick film with long segments of silence where the only sounds that punctuate deadpan but ponderous statements are those of insects and birds.

And when statements are spoken in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, they invite you to reflect on its meaning. The lead character Uncle Boonmee is a former farmer, a former soldier, a raconteur, a widower, a father, a brother and an uncle, who knows that he is dying from a kidney disease and that his days are numbered. Lying on a bed in rural Thailand, the old man Boonmee talks of killing larvae pests on a tamarind tree, and shortly afterwards there is a conversation on conserving the life of bees while collecting and consuming the honey. There is a contradiction in attitudes here, to kill living things or no to kill. It is this duality in life the film explores at various stages of the movie. Mallick in his film The Thin Red Line (1998) asked a somewhat related  rhetoric question to the viewer: “What’s this war in the heart of nature?” Both films are examples of mature cinema that has transcended conventional box office demands and invites the viewer to a new level of cinematic experience.

An early segment of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives presents an intriguing shot of a Thai buffalo tied with a rope. The buffalo breaks free by brute strength and wanders into a forest and we see the animal lost in the forest without any clue to what it should do next. But the viewer also sees the faints shapes of simian “ghosts” in the forest watching the entry of the buffalo. The sequence can be best understood, if we recall the opening quote of this Thai film: "Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me." The life of Boonmee and the buffalo are interlinked: in cinema and in time as a key to open the chest of enigmatic visuals that follow.

Mallick in his The Thin Red Line had included a similar opening sequence of an alligator that is capable of devouring human beings sliding into water majestically in a forest only to be shown, towards the end of that film, dead and strung up by soldiers as their food. Both sequences in the two related films might confuse many in the audience but both directors are talking about nature and the larger equation of nature with us, human beings. It is this somewhat similar duality or contradiction in life that the Thai director presents in the epilogue of Uncle Boonmee Who Can  Recall His Past Lives in which a Buddhist monk who has vowed to give up all comforts for his religion yearns to have a shower and goes to a karaoke bar, while his close family are glued to a TV channel showing inane activities of the Thai army.

I do not know how much of the wisdom of the Thai film can be attributed to the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and how much to the senior Buddhist monk Phra Sripariyattiwetti's 1983 book, “A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives, Uncle Boonmee” on which the movie is loosely based. But one thing is certain: the film is not just about philosophy and religion but one equally on contemporary Thai politics. First, Uncle Boonmee believes that his present kidney failure has much to do with “karma”: the wages of sin, as it were, of killing too many Communists as a Thai soldier and parallel to his actions of killing pests on his farm with pesticides, as a prequel in his present life. Yet his sister and nephew re-assure him that he did all that for “the sake of his country.” Later in the film there is a comment that underscores the political message: “When the authorities found past people they shone a light at them. That light projected images of them onto a screen… When those images appeared, the past people disappeared.

An aging, wrinkled princess finds her youthful image in a water reflection, and this brings tears to her eyes. It should because the young princess had once spurned true love from her palanquin bearer. Then a remarkable dialogue follows between the aging princess and a talking catfish. The catfish has Boonmee’s voice and is perhaps an avatar of the princess’ true lover, the palanquin bearer. The princess says of her young image: "I know that reflection is an illusion"; the catfish/Boonmee responds, "I know that you're the same person I loved"; and the princess answers, "That's an illusion too."

The film is a “ghost” film as well just as two other major films made in 2010 can be classified loosely as “ghost” films—Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Anjelica and Alejandro Innaritu’s Biutiful. In all these three films from three different countries, the three film directors discuss interaction of the dying with ghosts (and the way immigrants are perceived by local populations). And the ghost appears to Boonmee when he has neared his time of departure from his current state. All the three movies employ the “ghosts” not to scare the viewer but to lift subject of the story to an unusual higher level while discussing family, politics, society and philosophy.

As in Biutiful, the importance of family is underscored. The very word “Uncle” is suggestive of this. The dying Boonmee is nursed with love by his sister and nephew. His dead wife appears as a ghost to thank her sister-in-law and nephew. Later in the film the dead wife appears more real and the viewer sees the husband hugging his ghost wife as she reassures her living husband that he has nothing to fear in death. In death and in life the family links are not broken. The father Boonmee yearns for his missing son’s company and a simian “ghost” with deep red eyes appears. The son has been missing for 13 years and had evidently taken to Communist ideology (are the red eyes a link or is the missing link the statement of mating with monkey ghosts?). The film provides reassurance for the dying because of the permanence of love exuding both from the dead and living. A poignant remark from a ghost (his wife) to the living Boonmee is “ghosts don't associate with places, they associate with people. We'll find each other.” The entire film indirectly deals with the struggle for freedom to move and migrate from the buffalo seeking freedom from its rope, to Boonmee wondering if he would ever be able to find his dead wife after death, to the Laotian workers who migrate to Thailand for a better life and yet do not find the respect they deserve, of a princess on a journey, the urban Thai seeking answers in the rural Thailand's forests and caves.

The interesting Thai film is structured in at least five segments that do not appear connected but if one cares to reflect on the film, its segments have a whole larger than the sum of its parts. The first segment deals with the buffalo, the kidney care in a makeshift hospital, and a road drive. The second deals with ghosts interacting with Boonmee and family. The third segment deals with conversation at the tamarind farm. The fourth deals with a princess and a talking catfish that transports you into the past. (It is possible, if we go by voice association, that Boonmee is the catfish in a previous life rather than the princess.) The fifth segment deals with a "magical" cave in the forest and death of Boonmee, somewhat reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker’s tunnel sequence. The sixth segment is an epilogue devoted to activity of a Buddhist monk who seeks material comforts of a shower and a Karaoke bar.

The following statement of the director Apichatpong Weerasethakul made in his “Cinema Scope” interview is revealing: “More than my other films, Uncle Boonmee is very much about cinema, that’s also why it’s personal. If you care to look, each reel of the film has a different style—acting style, lighting style, or cinematic references—but most of them reflect movies. I think that when you make a film about recollection and death, you have to consider that cinema is also dying—at least this kind of old cinema that nobody makes anymore.” It is perhaps this reason why I found Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives a lot more satisfying and meaningful than his earlier more celebrated works Syndromes and a Century and Blissfully Yours. Not having read the book on “Uncle Boonmee,” I do not know what percentage of the kudos need to go to the writer of the book and what percentage to the director of the film. All I can say is that I loved to watch Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives while I do not rate two of his afore-mentioned works that high. What I found so meaningful about the film is what the director himself stated in an interview to Bangkok Post: “Uncle Boonmee is a film about transformation, about objects and people that transform or hybridise. You can explain with scientific belief that nothing exists, nothing is really solid and everything is just a moving particle.”

While watching the credits I was surprised and encouraged to find Hollywood actor Danny Glover was an associate producer of this Thai film. I am convinced that understanding this film would require multiple viewings—but one thing I am convinced it is truly an intelligent and rewarding film experience that approaches the cinematic level of Tarkovsky’s and Mallick’s cinema. I am delighted that the Cannes jury recognized its merits and rewarded it with the Gold Palm prize in 2010, just as I am not surprised that another international jury--that of the International Film Festival of India held in Goa in the same year did not find it deserving of any award. At the Oscars too it did not make the final shortlist of five nominees for the best foreign film. Subsequently, this movie went on to win the best Asian film at the Asian Film Festival, 2011. One man's meat is truly another man’s poison.

P.S. The films Biutiful, The Strange Case of Anjelica and The Thin Red Line have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

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