When Apichatpong Weerasethakul finished his autobiographical trilogies Blissfully Yours (about his hometown), Tropical Malady (about his life), and Syndromes and A Century (about his parents), fans of his works anticipated to see what would come next for his sixth work. His lives had already been made into films. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives comes out as a surprise masterpiece of his lifetime experience - a mystical-aesthetic meditation, a homage to low-class pop culture and folktales, a retro of his previous works, a challenge of cinematic impulses, the hypnotization of audiences, and political debates on Thai alienation and class reduction.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was conceived as one of the integral parts in a multi-platform art project called Primitive that Apichatpong has been working on since 2009. It includes several installations, two shorts A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, Phantom of Nabua, a feature, and will finish with the book CUJO featuring documentation and photographs related to the project birthplace in Isan. The feature, set in the northeastern jungle, examines the dying Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) who is suffering from acute kidney failure, visited by fellow friends, his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and his long lost son Boonsong.
Like many Buddhist elders on the deathbeds, Uncle Boonmee has chosen to practice meditation - contemplating his earlier life, accepting karma, and encountering in peace the definite death. Apichatpong brings us the audience into the protagonist's world of imaginzation and reincarnation, with humors and bewilderment. Through the day-to-night shooting and frequently near-subliminal sound recording, his inner images were wisely transferred and appear behind the closed eyes into a film. A twilight and mysterious land like the entry into a meditating stage. We do not definite answer to what Uncle Boonmee were in his previous lives. He could be a buffalo standing silently under the tree in the beginning of the film, a catfish making love with the beauty-deconstructive princess, or whatever he will be depending on our imagination. As in the common Thai belief, one has to pass ten animal lives before being reborn as the ultimate being - a human.
Apichatpong once mentioned on his interest in the record of ordinary people's lives. Much of his previous works either manifest his impression of childhood experiences or the documentation of other ordinary lives. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is partly his reminiscient of Thai folktales and low-class pop culture. There also stands the close relationship between humans, animals, and ghosts, as to the Thai beliefs. Each being can transmigrate across into the world of one or the other, and often seen being transformed into one or the other lives. The visit of his dead wife repeats the common belief of a ghost who will return and take his/her beloved in their final days. His son-turned-ghost monkey with the glowing red eyes was in fact originated from a cheap comic book that is still popular among poor people. The catfish story instantly reminds us of the wellknown folktale - the transformation of a human mother into a catfish who tries to save her twin daughters from their stepmother. It has often been remade into the weekend costume series for children.
Instead of insulting them, Apichatpong is fascinated with it and transformed it into the experimental impulse. The poorly-grained images that came from the use of 16mm camera once was degraded by the intellectuals was paid with the director's homage to the old Thai films in the 1960s.
Apichaptong's movies are often known as lack of plot, something only to feel, to absorb, to seduce, and this time to amuse. But this time his sixth feature comes with several subtext and political references. The monkey ghost is in fact a transformed human who feels alientated in his society, that is, the village of Nabua (where his short project was orinigated from). The village was labeled as the communist zone during 1960s-1980s, when men were slaughtered and women were raped as of the political upheaval. In his new form of being, the ghost monkey can be a friend to everybody, even the soldiers. In the same way, the princess is also for the first time deconstructed into a common state of being. She is disfigured and even makes love with a catfish, something that will never happen in the real world. Apichatpong wisely plays with the superiority of royal class and even reduces it. In almost at the end, the director intentionally challenges the Thai censor boards by putting his monk to do all forbidden things - enjoying a hot shower, dressing up in T-shirt and going to karaoke. Apichatpong once had the problem with the censor board who deleted the guitar-playing monk scene from Syndromes and A Century.
Viewers of Apichatpong's previous works are often invited to fill out the narrative in each person's own way. But to watch Uncle Boonmee, we the audience come into a vivid stage. With the familiar scenes of rural houses, and regular performers as in Blissfully Yours (Jenjira - Huay's sister and her niece Rung), Tropical Malady (Sakda - the nephew and monk), we are inevitably pushed to construct our impressionist responses towards his works, in the same way as the director has with the old Thai style pics. The scenes are so familiar. The performes are like our friends. We are like drawn into a strange stage. The low-key visual style and distant sound recording, is likely to hypnotize us into the phylosopical understanding of life. Movie can hypnotize us. And then cinema is not real.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives can be an ultimate masterpiece for the fans of Apichatpong. It is indeed a film of Apichatpong recalling his present life, his childhood experience, his cinematic love, and talents. But, due to the much personal interpretations, viewers can enter the sleepting stage, rather than the so-called deep meanings.