Which is not to say it is a simple movie, not really. It is and it isn’t. Like the shape-shifting and time-traveling wraiths and beasts and humans populating the film itself, it is a thing contentedly adrift in the in-between. In six long, clearly demarcated sequences, the ailing title character humbly goes about the business of coming to terms with the slow dissolution of his being. Kidney failure has made Uncle Boonmee weak and tired, and as he works to persuade his sister-in-law to take over his farm after he departs, emissaries from the spirit world begin to encroach. They’re not underworld vultures spying carrion, but consolers, benevolent guides to the unknown briefly manifesting as uncanny chimerae.
In the movie’s most powerful sequence, which comprises 25 minutes of terrifying, surreal, surprisingly funny, downright peerless filmmaking—it could stand alone as one of the greatest short films ever made—Boonmee’s al fresco supper is interrupted by the ghost of his dead wife before his long-vanished son appears as a crimson-eyed monkey ghost with a warning for Boonmee: “There are many beings outside right now. Spirits and hungry animals like me. They sense your sickness.” The film only gets weirder, as in a subsequent sequence depicting what might be Boonmee’s past life as a princess who, distraught, is drawn into sexual congress with an amorous catfish. This all sounds outlandish, and it is, but Weerasethakul’s deadpan reverence renders the sheer oddity into something more profound and universal. Boonmee is an initiate, and those he has loved the most, even those he has himself been, have come back—as memories or ghosts or visions, it doesn’t really matter—to assuage his fears, to gently usher him through.
It’s easy and eminently pleasurable simply to acquiesce to the film’s lapping beauty, to enter into it as you would a dream. However, while its occupation of some twilit territory between wide-eyed clarity and daymare impenetrability certainly encourages a kind of hypnotized abandonment to Weerasethakul’s rhapsody in blue and green, Uncle Boonmee is not only concerned with one man’s mystical journey. The film is actually the final installment in a multifilm project called “Primitive,” a series of shorts and installations exploring the Thai village of Nabua, its fraught political history and its haunted present. Boonmee certainly stands alone, and you need not explore “Primitive” further to appreciate its wonder, but it is a multivalent ghost story, as much about one man’s wispy memories as a disappeared community’s collective recollection.
When Boonmee, nearing his end, journeys at dusk to the cave in which he was once born, monkey ghosts standing guard, he has a vision of the future, a future wherein lights travel through people to project images. Weerasethakul is referring, of course, to this very film itself: a vision of a place that is also no place, about people who are not people, a village as it is and once was, a present that is a past that is a future. And in the end, it is a vision of the power of film itself to once in a while reduce the epic mess of existence into something we can hold in our heads for seconds at a time. It is glorious.
98 SEE IT: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.