We’re a long way from Phuket, Toto

19 11 2010
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives'

If a passing stranger with too much time on his hands were to ask me to make a list of the ten most important film-makers at work in the world today, then the name of the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul would be somewhere near the top.

Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered from bitter experience, the opinions of a semi-employable film ‘blogger count for little in this cold, hard world of ours. So it’s gratifying to see that Apichatpong (or Joe to his friends) is finally starting to receive the international recognition that he deserves for his work, with a Palme d’Or win at this year’s Cannes Festival and his latest film set to represent Thailand at next year’s Oscars.

The film in question is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which is released in UK cinemas today. It tells the story of the last few days in the life of an ageing man with kidney disease, who has chosen to end his days in a thickly-forested corner of Northern Thailand once riven by civil war. As the title suggests, Uncle Boonmee has a better recollection of his past lives than most and, as his final illness overtakes him, we find him mulling over both his present and his former existences and the great, insoluble mysteries of life and death.

It’s not long before Uncle Boonmee is joined by the ghost of his dead wife, and then also by his dead son, who has metamorphosed somehow into a hairy, Wookie-like jungle creature. We see glimpses of moments from the dying man’s previous lives as his feverish mind runs through them, including an already much commented upon scene in which a princess has sex with a catfish.

Now on paper this probably sounds a little bit odd. But if you’ve ever seen and loved an Apichatpong film before, then you’ll know already that on screen it will all make perfect sense. After all, this is a director whose films, if nothing else, are permeated by a sense of all-pervading, almost transcendental calm; a calm that allows pretty much anything to happen quite naturally, no matter how unexpected.

In Tropical Malady (2004) for example, a hunter in the jungle encounters talking monkeys and the ghost of a cow. In Blissfully Yours (2002) a quiet picnic by a stream turns into a sensual, sexual orgy before our eyes. In both cases, by the time that any of this unconventional ‘craziness’ has happened the viewer has already become like a hypnotised chicken in the director’s hands, lulled into a sense of acceptance and wonder by his gentle manipulation of the rhythms and sounds of human and animal life.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, yesterday.

Apichatpong’s films are self-contained, poetic and beguiling. Without wanting to sound patronising, he brings a uniquely Buddhist and a uniquely Thai approach to cinematic storytelling, in that the lives of his characters are always shadowed by parallel lives, or former lives, that slip effortlessly into the present. In Tropical Malady, a close, probably gay male friendship soon becomes a tiger hunt, with one character becoming a cattle-ripping beast, and the other a soldier, charged with tracking him down. In Syndromes and a Century (2006) two versions of the same love story – one possibly involving the director’s parents – play out in parallel in different times and places.

Such stories have their roots in folk myth, in family myth and in the stories that nations tell about themselves, as well as in the dreams of individuals. And it is in such stories and myths that Apichatpong’s films deal, and through and between them that they slip with such fluidity.

Uncle Boonmee… is no exception. On one level it’s a story about the bloody suppression of a Communist insurgency in 1965, on the other it’s a very personal meditation on death, and on yet another, it references both the traditions and the stock characters of popular Thai cinema (the ‘Wookie’ character in particular).

If you were looking for a comparison, you could maybe mention Jean Cocteau or Terence Malick. But for me the Thai director’s work surpasses that of even these great poets of the cinema in its scope and its achievement.

Let’s be clear: what we’re dealing with here is poetry, pure and simple; the poetry of images and sounds, of lives half-lived as they echo others, and of the teeming, squawking mystery of the jungle. If you want a nice, neat three-act structure, and a film full of conventional twists and turns, then you should probably go elsewhere. But if you want to see where cinema, still so young, can go next, and what it can still do,  then you should pay attention to the work of this modest Thai master.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is in UK cinemas now.

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