The plot summary on the Netflix sleeve for last year's Palm D'Or winner, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," is nice and straightforward. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying, and so spends his final days reminiscing over his past lives in the company of his relatives, both alive and dead. I'm not sure I ever would have figured that out if I'd seen the film blind, and I'm still not entirely convinced that this is what's going on, except that the title makes specific reference to Boonmee's past lives. Instead "Uncle Boonmee," directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul, is a series of encounters between its human characters and the spiritual world, and not all of them involve Boonmee.
We begin with a family reunion, as Boonmee's sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) arrive at Boonmee's farm, and no one voices out loud that they all expect it is for the last time. They chat about work and family, and Boonmee updates them on the progress of his illness. Later during dinner, the ghost of Huay, Boonmee's wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and a red-eyed, fur-covered "ghost monkey" who was once Boonsong, Boonmee's son (Jeerasak Kulhong) arrive at the kitchen table to chat some more and give updates on what they've been doing in the years they've all been separated. That's the kind of movie this is, slow and incidental and full of strange, fanciful occurrences that are never explained.
The lack of exposition and conventional narrative may confound some viewers. How can everyone react so calmly to the appearance of the ghost and spirit members of the family? How can a walk in the forest lead to a scene from a past life? And what on earth was going on with the monk who gains a double for no apparent reason? That's just the way things are in this universe, where the borders between one world and the next, one life and the next have grown very thin for Uncle Boonmee, and sometimes aren't there at all. So the natural and the supernatural worlds are situated together quite comfortably for him, and as we watchi him live out his final days, there's often no indication of when we're passing from one to the next.
Despite Boonmee's past lives being highlighted in the title of the film, they only take up a very small portion of the story, and we're never told who Boonmee is in any of the scenes as they play out. In the encounter we witness between a princess and her lovers, who is Boonmee? The princess? The catfish in the pond who speaks to her? Or someone else observing them? If I hadn't known this was a vision of a past life, I would have assumed the appearance of the princess was as simple fantasy. Is the opening scene with the runaway cow another past life? One segment unfurls in a wartime photo collage with soldiers in modern military fatigues - most likely memories from Boonmee's current life, but it's hard to be sure. If there is a key to decoding the film and Boonmee's spiritual path, I'm afraid haven't found it yet. Perhaps it's not there at all.
However, there's so much more in the film that's easy to overlook if you only focus on the supernatural questions. "Uncle Boonmee" is an exceptionally beautiful, immersive piece of cinema, especially when it explores the natural world, another universe that the modern characters must coexist with at all times. At the kitchen table, chirping cicadas provide the soundtrack. In bedroom scenes, there always seems to be a curtain or a bit of mosquito netting shifting slightly in the wind. Boonmee and his relatives visit jungles, waterfalls, mica-flecked caverns, and other nearby natural wonders as his time grows short, returning Boonmee to his roots in the most literal sense.
At a certain point I stopped trying to figure out the mechanics of what was going on in "Uncle Boonmee" and just sat back and let the film become an experience. Even if the plot was incomprehensible at times, the mood and the characters were not. Spending time with Boonmee's relatives felt like spending time with my own extended family on a humid summer night in Taipei or Southern California, with everyone gossiping about the neighbors' kids, batting at flies with paper fans, and then taking an unhurried walk around the neighborhood outskirts to cool off. The rhythm of life in the film is familiar and welcoming. The ghosts and red-eyed spirits, while a little unnerving, are benign. Unlike in most fantasy films, they serve not as instigators, but only as reminders.
I liked "Unclee Boonmee" very much, but it does take an open mind, a yen for the spiritual, and a lot of patience to get your head around. The title and that too-straightforward plot summary aren't wrong, but they are misleading as to the kind of movie this is and what its intentions are. To be honest, I'm not sure what its real intentions are after a single viewing, but I wouldn't mind sitting down with "Uncle Boonmee" again sometime to find out.