Saturday, November 26, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – Sublime Stories and Mortality

Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is sent home from the hospital. He survives kidney failure but is aware that he doesn’t have much time left either. In his remote farm in northern Thailand, surrounded by verdant greens, a tamarind plantation and the lush jungles, Uncle Boonmee receives guests out to help him recuperate. There’s Jaai, the illegal migrant from Laos; his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee); and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas).

One night at dinner, Boonme and his guests are surprised by the arrival of the most unexpected visitors: his wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and his son Boonsong. But Huay passed away 19 years ago and Boonsong – now a red-eyed monkey - disappeared 6 years after Huay’s death. Over a delectable bowl of Jen’s glass noodles and chilli soup, Boonme regales his guests with vivid memories of his past lives: as a carabao and a catfish. He even foresees his future, reincarnated as a political dissident who falls victim to an oppressive military regime. ("They have the power to make you disappear," he says.) Is Boonmee delirious? A case of renal encephalopathy where toxins circulate around, affecting the thought process? Or is Uncle Boonmee in the incipient stages of goodbye?

Director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul languidly takes us on a ponderous and ruminative journey to mortality the way Thais view life in terms of merit making, reward and punishment. The Buddhists believe that your past has a bearing on your present life; that fate is an amalgam of deeds we've accumulated from past lives, and that we live an imminent existence. Making merit (among men especially) is a goal as it helps stir us somewhere better..

Narratology employs Real Time Film Making (as when we find the carabao escaping from his tree; or when an ugly princess is taken in stark darkness to a mystical river; or even when Tong enjoys a warm shower as a monk) rendering a hypnotic milieu to the story. Story telling is almost passive, allowing time to pace and almost stagnate. The technique is of course being criticized,their film makers labeled as “self indulgent”, but some of the most sublime films are products of such technique. To mean something, such artifice has to have a direction, instead of being randomly aimless. Turk director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’sUzak” (Distant) is a fine example.

A few scenes remind us of Auraeus Solito’sBusong” and Adolf Alix’sIsda”, local auteurs who employ reel time story telling. This narrative strain takes us to the time-warped anecdote of the grotesque-looking princess who’s besotted with one of her tribesmen. Though the “warrior” welcomes the princess’ advances, he kisses the princess with eyes shut, imagining instead a mirage of the beautiful maiden that is reflected from the magic lake. These midnight jaunts through the jungles and to the lake have afforded the royalty a false sense of levity. Her minions carry her on a veiled carriage, an image not dissimilar to Alessandra de Rossi’s Punay in “Busong”. When the warrior finally flees, the princess is left conversing with a catfish who proclaims her the most beautiful maiden he’s ever laid eyes on.

The princess, unnaturally pleased with the adulation, submits herself to the wiles of the fish. What follows is a scene so out worldly as we find the strange couple consummate their relationship – on the water! Have you witnessed a fish make love to a woman? Much like Alix’s “Isda” where a woman named Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) suddenly gives birth to a fish! Yes, they both sound ridiculous, but we don’t call our fables and fairy tales that, do we? We use terms like “magical” and “bewitching”. Words that I illustriously bestow on “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, “Busong” (Palawan Fate), and “Isda” (Fable of the Fish).

Uncle Boonmee” is not for everyone. It requires patience and a leap of faith. It follows a semi-linear story fraught with flashbacks and flash forwards. Heck, it requires a degree of cogitation. After all, discernment isn’t born when you’re spoonfed details. You have to maladroitly realize a few things along the way. As when the closing frame shows Jen and Tong with seemingly discordant, albeit identical mirages diverge. The first pair is watching television, and their mirage is shown leaving the room to get dinner. WTF indeed.

Tamarind fruits have worms.

The princess touches her favorite warrior.

Wife Huay: "Heaven is overrated. There is nothing there."

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