Facing the jungles the hills and vales my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up
Awarded the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is as grand in themes as it is intimate in focus. Ruminating on death, the afterlife and reincarnation, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film centres around the final days of Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an ageing man suffering from kidney failure. Accompanied by his sister-in-law and nephew, Boonmee is unexpectedly revisited one night by his deceased wife and long lost son. Far from suggesting a dark, supernatural turn of events, the reappearance of the dead and missing in Uncle Boonmee merely prefigures the film’s exploration of mortality and personal memory.
Indeed, the matter-of-fact manner in which Boonmee responds to his wife and child’s sudden re-emergence in that scene is in keeping with the still, almost meditative sensibility that underscores the film. Characterised by long single takes and static frames, the direction and cinematography of Uncle Boonmee repeatedly evokes the central character’s preoccupation with the past.
However, the sense of stillness that underlines Uncle Boonmee is also indicative of the film’s rural setting. Emphasising nature as an element within the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation, the film makes constant reference to the animals, insects and jungle terrain that surround Boonmee and constitute his existence. Unlike his sister-in-law Jen (on leave from her urban home) who complains about the ‘bugs’, migrant workers and living conditions, Boonmee’s spiritual identity is bound to the natural world. In that context, Uncle Boonmee certainly offers up comparisons with the films of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) and his preoccupation with Heideggerian notions of nature and ‘being’. Like Malick’s protagonists, Weerasethakul depicts Boonmee’s communion with nature as a fundamental aspect of his acceptance of life/death.
Beyond the film’s depiction of the natural world though, perhaps the most striking element of Uncle Boonme is its conception of time, images and memory. In this, Weerasethakul’s work shares more than a passing similarity to Chris Marker’s evocative masterpiece, Sans Soleil (1983). In a sequence consisting entirely of still photographs (a technique Marker also used within La Jetée) Boonmee narrates a dream about a future world in which time travellers are hunted down and erased when their image is projected upon a screen. Imagining death through a form of photographic projection, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives comments on the camera’s ability to capture a life (as a series of moments or memories) that is destined to disappear. It seems fitting then that by the end of the film both director and lead character have achieved a form of enlightenment. Weerasethakul has discovered in cinema the perfect metaphor for reincarnation: a form of representation in which – as Uncle Boonmee comes to realise – all things are at once both present and past.