In my last two posts, I wrote about disappointing and rewarding time-travels at the movies. But the strangest film I’ve seen recently took me back in time even farther, into realms of folklore and primitive religion. And like both The Tree of Life and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it brought me to a stone gateway to face mysterious questions about time and death. It’s hard to imagine an American studio executive and a publicist discussing this movie, but let’s give it a try:
Publicist: “So, it’s a film set in Thailand.”
Executive: “Oh, no! Americans won’t want to see that. What’s the director’s name?”
Pub: “Well…how much time do you have?”
Exec: “Just tell me.”
Pub: “His name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.” [Long silence.]
Pub: “But there’s good news. He asks Americans to call him ‘Joe.’”
Exec: “‘Directed by Joe’? Tell me this movie has a catchy title.”
Pub: “You should know that it won the film world’s most prestigious honor.”
Exec: “An Oscar?”
Pub: “No. The Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.”
Exec: “That translates into Box Office Disaster. Tell me what it’s called!”
Pub: [hesitating] “It’s called Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” [Long, deathly silence.]
Exec: “Let me explain something. This is the era of the disintegrating attention span. Even Martin Freaking Scorsese knows that. He’s adapting a bestselling book—The Invention of Hugo Cabret—for a Christmas release. Know what he did? He cut the title down to Hugo Cabret. Americans don’t have patience for long, un-Tweetable titles. This week, they dropped Cabret. Probably sounds too foreign. Now the movie’s just Hugo.”
[The Executive turns and stares out his 62nd floor window for a long time.] “What’s it about?”
Pub: “It says here, ‘Encounters with the dead. Reincarnation. Ghost monkeys in the darkness. War against communists. A princess who has sex with a catfish.’”
Exec: [stands up, lights a cigar] “Now we’re talking!”
See what I mean? Yes, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives really delivers those bizarre visions. But it may also be the year’s quietest film, presenting its surreal world as a series of meditations.
Joe as a director is unconcerned with making his audience comfortable, with following conventional narratives, or doling out thrilling conclusions. He does, however, deliver haunting scenes of magical realism. What makes these scenes unique is their matter-of-factness. They seem to say, “Yes, the world is full of mysteries. They’re around every dinner table, knocking on every door, hovering at funerals, singing in karaoke bars.”
In his previous film—Syndromes and a Century— Joe examined the tension between old-world healing practices and contemporary, technology-reliant medicine. Moving between sterile clinics and idyllic natural environments, he found a new kind of science fiction. During a quiet conversation beside a pond, characters failed to notice a celestial event that rates among the biggest surprises of my moviegoing lifetime. In Syndromes and a Century, the world can enter a new age so suddenly that we’ll miss it if we aren’t paying attention.
Uncle Boonmee is about transitions as well. It’s about the moments when our worlds expand; when our outlines turn out to be more porous than we thought; when natives welcome immigrants, city folk meet farmers, and monks cast off their robes and embrace a new experience.
It is, in short, about border crossings.
Who is Uncle Boonmee? He’s a farmer suffering kidney failure and contemplating his mortality: either dreaming, or actually “recalling his past lives.” That would explain the title; the water buffalo scene; and the erotic, mythological interlude in which a catfish seduces a princess. (Many of the film’s border crossings involve baptism—kidney rinsings, pond-water couplings, showers.)
Late at night, during an outdoor dinner at the edge of the wilderness, Boonmee has several visitors. He’s dining with his Laotian assistant and his sister-in-law from the city when two visitors arrive unexpectedly.
The first is a ghost—Huay, the wife Boonmee lost many years earlier. The other is their son Boonsong, who disappeared years ago while studying mysterious spirit-monkeys. Apparently he mated with one of them, and now, except for his gleaming red eyes, he looks like a man in an ape suit from Land of the Lost.
This dinnertime conversation is an exchange of testimonies about bridges crossed. It’s a surprisingly casual discussion, though charged with mystery and amazement. It’s as if Boonmee is being assured that his whole life has been about transitions from one world to the next. Why should death be any different?
Border crossings continue in the film’s bewildering conclusion. We see people in a hotel room hypnotized into a seemingly comatose state by televised images of wartime. Is this a form of death? Meanwhile, a monk strips off his robes and steps into a shower, opening his hands to the streaming modern luxury as if in gratitude.
Ultimately, Uncle Boonmee might be Joe’s movie about movies. He may be asking if cinema is just another way to be transformed by border crossings, or if these hypnotic images might not be seducing us—like spirit monkeys and catfish—to become some new kind of monster. (The B-movie ape-creature might be Joe himself, a man transformed by the “stuff” of filmmaking.)
This feels like the kind of movie I was warned about when I was a child. “Movies made by heathens and foreigners are full of false worldviews, visions of the occult, and worst of all… extramarital sex!”
But my Christian tradition insists that eternity is written in all human hearts, and humankind’s longing for redemption and for deliverance from death will be expressed in all cultures, histories, religions, and legends. Joe is a storyteller from a culture about as far removed from my own as I can imagine. And yet, in his pursuit of wild mysteries, he has found more than horror and sadness. He’s found some glimmers of beauty and grace that suggest we may be meant for more than suffering and death.
The film’s only mention of heaven comes from Boonmee’s dead wife. She testifies that heaven is disappointing—that there’s hardly anyone there. But I think the film’s best picture of what we hope heaven will be comes at that feast in the dark, where people gather in peace and tell stories about the wonders they’ve seen, discovering that death has no power to keep them from one another.
Note: Next week, at The Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I’ll be joining a community of artists for readings, concerts, art exhibits, feasts… and yes, movies. We’ll step into new worlds. We’ll share stories of those we’ve seen. We’ll be changed. We’ll embrace the hope of everlasting life. Weeks like that are the closest things to heaven that I know—where I get to witness all things made new among community. And there are still some seats at the table available. Want to join me?