Exploring destiny, reincarnation and transformation in “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” (2010)

The last days of a farmer dying from kidney disease on his farm in a rural area in northeast Thailand, where in 1965 as an army soldier he helped kill Communist sympathisers in Nabua village near Laos, form the portal to an exploration of destiny, reincarnation, transformation and extinction, and ultimately an expression of the Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of the physical forms of life. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Jaai (Sakda Kaewbuadee) in his last days at his farm, where he employs migrant workers from Laos, is joined by the ghost of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who appears as a forest monkey as he contemplates the reasons for his chronic illness and reviews previous lives he has lived, including those of a water buffalo that ran away from its owner but became lost in the forest and allowed itself to be led back home by its owner, and of a catfish who seduces a disfigured princess who rejects the amorous advances of a soldier she secretly desires.

Through Boonmee and the stories he tells, viewers gain a sketchy overview of the history of Thailand from its peasant origins through to the present day with past political and ideological struggles, and its current status in which Thai traditions and beliefs sit more or less uneasily with the trappings of Western culture and technology. Boonmee becomes more than just a farmer: we see he has served his country, but in a way that troubles him despite Jen’s reassurances; we see that he misses Huay; and we see that though he employs possibly illegal migrant workers, he seems to treat them well and they appear loyal to him. What we take to be reality becomes rather less so: our assumptions about the nature of things, of structures and of the world itself become less sure and more unstable, until some force acting on them or even just as the result of the passage of time they dissolve and become something else altogether.

While the film follows a very basic linear structure, past events and reminiscences intrude at intervals so that time becomes a circular dimension. For viewers watching the film after 2018, the scenes that take place in the cave will remind them of the real-life incident in which a soccer team of 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a network of caves in northern Thailand for two weeks – so that incident becomes an unexpected future addendum to the film! At its end, the film appears to divide into two, so that two endings, one in which two characters stay in a room watching television and the other in which they go to a karaoke restaurant, are possible.

The cinematography is well done with many beautiful shots of the countryside. The background soundtrack of ambient nature and insects in particular exercises an immersive effect on viewers. No plot exists as such: rather, the director sets up dioramas in which scenes take place, not necessarily having much connection with one another, and the action not significantly advancing any particular narrative apart from presenting an idea or concept for contemplation and meditation. For this reason, the film is not likely to appeal to Western audiences wanting a linear story-line where an action leads to another action and so on. Character development is weak and at the end of the film we know no more about various characters than we did at the beginning.

If viewers are prepared to give up preconceptions about what films should do for them, and instead watch “Uncle Boonmee …” as an expression of Buddhist philosophy and in particular of the constant transformation of life that extends even to the transformation of cinema, the methods of film-making and the relationship between the viewer and the act of watching a film, they may find plenty to ponder and marvel at.

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