Turn On The Dark, by Scott Nye
First, we have to talk about the darkness. On a technical level, it’s beyond admirable – these are some of the darkest images I’ve ever seen onscreen, and I have no idea how they lit for it. On an emotional level, it’s sort of disorienting to find your way through a film with this as your starting point, with only glimmers of familiar shapes that are intriguing, but speak to a philosophy you don’t have a full grasp on. A natural starting point, I should say.
The idea of total comprehension of an Apichatpong Weerasethkul film the first time through is beyond my grasp, but that does not mean there isn’t plenty to it that’s worth discussing. Though it is much more comprehensible than the Thai director’s last film, Syndromes and a Century, it is still anything but straightforward. Syndromes dealt with, among other things, the divide between rural and city life, and Uncle Boonmee has similar trappings. Though set entirely in the countryside, modern medicine must intrude as the titular character comes to the end of his life due to acute kidney failure. And it’s sort of mind-blowing how often a film that features monkey ghosts and a promiscuous, talking catfish also turns to the rigors of medical care.
Weerasethkul’s cinema could be described as “effortless,” and the early part of his films tend to come off that way. What we discover as we go on, however, is more of a quiet confidence. While most modern masters go out of their way to bombard you with constant ecstasy (and, in the right hands, there isn’t anything wrong with that), Weerasethukul creates a quiet environment in which anything can, and will, happen. He’s not above introducing a new style (an over-the-shoulder, handheld follow, for example) when it feels right, or suddenly but totally catching you off guard with one of the most amazing things you’ve ever seen (in Syndromes, it’s a shot of an air vent, of all things). His profound moments of awe do not announce themselves as such, but are just as disarming as the climax of something like a Darren Aronofsky movie. When he confronts us with his final mystery in Uncle Boonmee, it happens with so little fanfare that it takes a second to catch what just happened. What seemed like a sly subversion of cinematic language was instead a quiet miracle.
But the thin line he creates between the mundane and the fantastic is established much earlier. When Huay, Boonmee’s long-dead wife, appears at their dinner table, only his nephew, Tong, is truly shocked by her presence. For Boonmee and his sister-in-law Jen, and by extension us in the audience, these many phases of life seem only natural. So when Boonmee’s son, who has been missing for years, comes to their table as, yes, a monkey ghost, it doesn’t seem as out of place as you might imagine. These elements are treated no differently than the daily changing of Boonmee’s bandages, and Jen’s first question to him – “Why did you grow your hair so long?” – is the perfect comment to diffuse the situation.
I mentioned that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is not a terribly straightforward film, and that begins with the title. While it seems on the outside like the art house’s answer to Snakes on a Plane in terms of telling you exactly what you’re in for, the film actually gives no indication that Boonmee CAN recall his past lives. We’re given side trips and glimpses of images that could very well be images of former incarnations, but no direct connection is ever made. What the title instead comes to refer to is the nature of past lives, of a world that never truly dies and is instead continuously reborn. Souls still wander the world after death, and everyone understands that they’ll meet again some day in some form. Life thrives in areas and forms that seem impossible and only occasionally understandable, and any one of the flies Jen swats or the bees that make Boonmee’s honey could one day become the people he feels such guilt over killing while in the military; maybe they already were.
In one scene, Boonmee walks through a cave with Jen and Tong. The cave seems to be filled with stars. In a small pool of water, a school of fish swim about. We’re given no indication of a larger habitat for these fish, but even given this small chance, they have found a way to exist side by side with the people we’re ostensibly following. The scene as a whole is simply magical, and this small, found shot connects it to a world that is as much a mystery as being surrounded by ghosts.
I cannot express how refreshing it is to have a film that is so relentlessly, unapologetically, and successfully a cinematic mystery. While most modern works that dive into the surreal seem hellbent on explaining away their most compelling elements (Inception, I’m looking at you, but even the superior Enter the Void would have been a much better film without an early explanation of the film’s eventual proceedings), Uncle Boonmee has courage of its conviction to simply present something beyond our understanding and leave it at that. It’s baffling, fascinating and ultimately a rare, beautiful thing.