The Man-Beast in the Jungle
Director/co-producer Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul returns to the New York Film Festival with Cannes Palme d’Or-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat, a Q&A, and a “public conversation.” Favorites on the art-house/festival circuits, his lush difficult works are not geared to general audiences abroad or at home -- Thais, too, like rock ‘em-sock ‘em -- although this multi-country-financed newest did play longer in Bangkok than his earlier ones, albeit at only two theaters.
Also-NYFF Tropical Malady was referenced several times during the media session, rightly so, for in technique and theme the two are of a piece. A bit distinct from Latin American literature’s magic realism, the marvelous in them is folk-primitive: karma and reincarnation, spirits, ghosts, out-of-body experiences; animals and man-become-animals; civilized lives on the edge of wilderness (and a parallel, contrasted one in a hotel room) and mystical existences in the jungle, caves and waters; sounds of silence and nature as much as dialogue or music; memory individual and tribal; and unexpected incursions of the military, politics and religion. These elements coexist side-by-side and in tandem, in abrupt non-linear shifts Super-16 photographed in sharp dark color or through fuzzing gauze -- Weerasethakul’s MFA in Filmmaking is from The Art Institute of Chicago.
A widower for nineteen years, the titular uncle (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying of renal failure, ministered to by Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) on his fruit and honey farm supervised by illegal Laotian Jaai (Samud Kugasang). He wonders if the fatal illness is bad karma from his having killed too many communists there in the northeast -- with oppressed peasants, they fled into the jungles -- but this is pooh-poohed by his lame sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), who has come to help out and whose father had done the same “for the nation.”
At their nighttime meal, Boonmee’s dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) materializes, to slight surprise but not consternation. Preserved that way from the moment of death that she does not recall, hearing people’s prayers and messages, she arrives for no specified purpose but will later embrace and help her husband with his drainage catheter.
To no one’s overwhelming fright or amazement, either, up the wooden stairs walks a smaller-bodied Sasquatch. Black furred -- “Why did you grow your hair so long, child?”-- and his dilated red eyes aglow like those of Monkey Ghosts glimpsed throughout and calling up Lucas’ “long time ago galaxy far far away,” he identifies himself as Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), Boonmee and Huay’s son who thirteen years ago read The Art of Photography, grabbed a Pentax, and disappeared to snap such creatures and wound up mating with one.
Inspired by the abbot Phra Sripariyattiwetti’s 1983 book, A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives, the director’s script is, he pointed out afterwards, concerned with memory. “American people,” he added, “try to forget.” Freed thus from progression through rational connections, the film moves leisurely, as in dreams, with events and sequences puzzling to the waking consciousness. The director was careful to avoid denotative commitment, as in his answer about whether the Monkey Ghosts symbolize communists -- “It’s open for me, it can be, but also may be children who grow up and leave parents.”
So a developed, seeming non-sequitur sequence can come in the middle, where a beringed, braceleted, necklaced and veiled Princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) is borne on a palanquin to a waterfall pool where she dismisses a soldier-lover (Sumit Suebsee), mourns her ageing face which becomes young reflected in the water, and is reassured by a catfish which has sexual congress with her. Or at the end-switch to a funeral followed by Jen and Roong (Kanokporn Thongaram) adding up funeral contributions and then Tong entering as a saffron monk, showering, dressing in jeans and tee-shirt, and heading to a 7-Eleven with the girl even as the three of them simultaneously also remain in front of TV news.
Back in the “main” thread is the winded hike of Boonmee, Huay, Jen and Tong to a cave whose entrance is a silhouetted kissing face and within which mica walls sparkle like the starry sky. Here, on immaculate white sand floors cut by the blackest of tropical shadows, awaits peaceful death with perhaps intimations of immortality from recollections but not, in the strict sense, of reincarnation. “I believe in possibilities . . . in ‘transference’ as [the body] rots and becomes part of earth.”
Such possibilities exist in the journey, the coming-and-going from life to death and back like crossing Isaan’s political lines into and out of Laos and Cambodia. Critically acclaimed, the director works outside the commercial industry, through his Kick the Machine Films promoting independent, experimental cinema. To enjoy his personal output, the viewer must be willing not only to suspend disbelief but also to be as unfazed by the marvelous as the characters who inhabit it.
(Released by Strand Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)