Languorously slow but fascinatingly so, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a curiously mesmerizing reverie that erases the barriers between the celestial and terrestrial and softens the boundaries between life and the afterlife.
Boonmee is a farmer suffering from an ambiguous kidney failure. He’s in his last days. One evening, his wife Huay, who has been dead for 19 years, appears at the dinner table. His long-lost son also emerges as a sort of mythical Sasquatch. For Boonmee, memory is a fragmentary series of events, interactions, and relationships, which deny rationality.
In this Palme d’Or winner, writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century) frequently abandons the story for trancelike contemplations of nature. Yet in doing so, he opens up an impressive visual or aural landscape, with wonderfully atypical uses of composition – as seen in the waterfall scene or the palace funeral – and sound – as heard in the electric fly-swatter.
It is a place where images and their associations, through editing and pacing, or how long the camera lingers, invite deeper meanings. Weerasethakul does not dash towards a final goal, but instead peeks behind various bushes. Eight-minute swaths of hypnotic apparitions swirl in dialogue-free silence, activating the mind on a near subconscious level.
If it’s a bit narcotizing, it’s also languidly sensuous, mysterious, and bemusing. It demonstrates remarkable patience and restraint, as the film meanders and slithers along with minimal movement, exploring themes of water and rebirth, reflection and illusion. Bathed in the jungle photography, tormented by those blazing red eyes peering in the dark, it’s a profoundly unique, moving, and unsettling experience, like waking from a deep trance or recalling a vivid dream, freshly prepared to experience the world with supreme awareness.
Superstitious and spiritualistic, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is an unostentatious exploration of consciousness and reincarnation. It’s meditative, surprising, original, animistic, and primitively magical. “Ghosts aren’t attached to places, but to people.” If you let it in, Weerasethakul’s pensive ode to the beings that watch over us might just attach itself to you.