Thai film ponders the ineffable down on the farm

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

At the Charles Theatre Jan. 26 at 9 p.m. as part of the Charles Revival Series

It’s tempting to recommend the latest film from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul strictly on the basis of its bravura set pieces. There’s a family dinner invaded by departed loved ones, including the translucent ghost of an ex-wife and a mysteriously missing son returned as a glowing-eyed jungle-dwelling monkey ghost; a disfigured princess who makes love with a catfish in a shadowy jungle pool; a journey deep into the mysteries of a dark and glittering cave. The former two more or less work on their own as discrete units, almost like short films, in fact. The latter, on the other hand, falling near the end of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, manages to build up something almost like suspense as we wait for the flashlight beam to reveal the answer to all that’s come before. That it never really does—and that it doesn’t really matter—speaks to both the film’s inscrutable nature and the dream-like spell it casts.

In terms of simple plot summary, Uncle Boonmee focuses on the final days of the titular relative (Thanapat Saisaymar), dying of kidney failure, as he retreats to his bucolic farm in the Thai countryside with a few family members and a servant. Nothing inspires looking back quite as much as not much to look forward to, and as Boonmee ruminates, visions and meditations regarding past lives take over.

Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, his best-known films in this country to date, played with bifurcated and parallel narratives. Uncle Boonmee fractures into multiple narratives, broken up into other times and other places and filmed in slightly different styles, united by a soul in common and by this cinematic account. It may not always be clear what’s going on (is that water buffalo another reincarnation?), and there are references that will likely resonate only for Thai viewers, but what ultimately becomes scrutable is an overwhelming sense of the interconnectedness of not only Boonmee’s past lives, but also the lives of his family—of us all, really—close or distant, past and present, this world or another (not least through the medium of film itself). As is typically the case with Weerasethakul’s films, it’s a bit of a puzzle, but it’s a gorgeous and rewarding one.

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