FILM REVIEW: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

from The Journal of Religion and Film
Vol. 15, No. 1, April 2011

Review by Jon Ciliberto

[1] Religious aspects are present in both the mysterious and the commonplace in Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Amid a spare plot, the film’s characters occupy a boundary area between the natural and the supernatural, a region which reflects the main setting of the film: the mountainous jungles of Isan Province (the director’s birthplace and frequent setting for his films). Buddhism and native folk religion are interwoven in this part of Thailand, a result both of the deep connection between the landscape and people, and of the efforts of the people to integrate local gods and spirits, typically as protectors and guides in worldly matters. Buddhism, which offers a means of achieving liberation from the world of changes, found a way to accommodate pre-existing spiritual traditions by putting local gods and spirits in charge of the material world. This integration was especially pronounced in India, Southeast Asia, and Tibet.

[2] Uncle Boonmee, who owns a farm, suffers from acute kidney failure. His relatives visit him, making the trip from urban and developed to rural Thailand. In a historical-cultural sense, this journey is a transition from the natural to the supernatural (or from the institutional to the personal). The religious culture of Isan incorporates elements from across the Mekong River – in Laos, Khmer culture dominated the region until the 13th century. As it sought to integrate all of Thailand in a single nation-state in the 19th century, the central authority in Bangkok adopted “countless measures […] that discouraged, suppressed, or belittled indigenous languages, cultural forms, and other forms of local identity, particularly in Isan” (Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand, Brereton and Somroay, p. 1).

[3] Boonmee’s sister, Jen, and his nephew, Tong, attend him during his final days and a migrant worker from Laos, Jaai, treats Boonmee’s kidney, draining it externally. Night descends with the utter darkness of rural Southeast Asia and the ever present, blanketing susurrus of jungle night-noise encloses the household. The jungle, the mysterious world, surrounds and enters as the spiritual world does everyday life. Assembled for dinner, the family is soon joined by a spirit, who fades into the scene seated at the table with them: it is Boonmee’s older sister Huay. Moments later, footsteps are heard on the stairs, and a large monkey-like creature with glowing red eyes appears: he is Boonmee’s deceased son, Boonsong. Both join the group, and after initial shock, they settle into reminiscing. The two supernatural characters mix into the action seamlessly. “It is well-known that the Buddhist and Jaina sutras contain many accounts of encounters with gods and spirits of various kinds […] These figures appear in the narrative on the same level and in much the same terms as the other, human characters…” (The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, Geoffrey Samuel, p 140-1). Seated at the table with a spirit and a ghost monkey who matter-of-factly describe their existences, Tong exclaims, “I feel like the strange one here.”

[4] Despite the film’s title, Uncle Boonmee doesn’t describe any of his past lives. The viewer can guess whether or not he is present in an episode from a previous century in Thailand, in which a princess with a disfigured face encounters a magical spirit-catfish at a waterfall, a scene whose antique color recalls early cinema. (Uncle Boonmee was shot entirely on film which is considered a ‘rarity these days’ – the texture of the film is due in part to this medium – and the director, in interviews, has pointed to his inspiration from early Thai movies.) The traditional religions of South and Southeast Asia populate the natural world with spirits and powers, and these came to be broadly named ‘yaksas’ in early Buddhism. The nagas of India are a well-known example, and their power is situated in streams, rivers, and waterfalls. The princess wishes to be beautiful, and wading into the pool she begins to strip off her heavy, metal jewellery, dropping it into the water as an offering. Her subsequent encounter with the catfish is prefigured by Boonsong’s explanation for his transformation into a ghost-monkey: he’d mated with such a forest creature upon encountering it years previously in the jungle. Sexual congress between humans and supernatural beings forms an area of pre-Buddhist religious activity in the region, and was incorporated iconographically. The symbolic transformation of water in a more modern form occurs near the film’s conclusion, when Tong (a Buddhist monk) sneaks out of his monastery following Boonmee’s funeral, joins his niece and aunt in their hotel room, takes a shower and changes into secular clothes. As he and his aunt depart for a bite to eat, their bodies remain seated on the hotel bed, watching television and transparent versions of their bodies go out to dinner. There is a puzzled moment as Tong stares at his body, seated on the bed, transfixed by the television. At such moments as these, one questions which life is the “real” life and which is the previous life, and are they laid atop one another rather than proceeding consecutively?

[5] A specifically symbolic representation of reincarnation occurs as Boonmee and his relatives make a journey through the forest, to a cave. Inside, lit by flashlight, bright minerals sparkle on the walls, like a field of stars on a black sky. The myriad lights are remarked on my Boonmee, as if his soul is transmigrating, wandering amongst possible rebirths. As with the film’s approach, this scene is not set apart as supernatural, or rather, the material and the spiritual are interwoven, overlaid, two aspects of the same thing. Peace and wonder attend the characters in this setting, a view through the cave’s entrance to the moon floating above amid tall trees.

[6] While past lives are not explicitly recounted, much of the film’s dialogue concerns memory, and memory reveals a past life. The philosopher Henri Bergson describes memory as spirit, the aspect of it of which we have ready, consistent evidence (Matter and Memory). Speculation attends wonder in viewing this film, and they are also connected activities in religion or spirituality. Familial relationships are paralleled by the idea of past lives, since one’s long deceased ancestors are, genetically, one’s own past life, while more immediately a child represents a parent’s future life. Uncle Boonmee artistically utilizes memory, family, and the space between civilization and jungle, past and present, and presence and absence in a simple narrative of the end of a life.

The author would like to acknowledge the generousity of the Nashville Film Festival for the opportunity to view this film.


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