Rarely has it been so difficult to describe a film, specifically one where there is minimal dialogue or plot and the entire footage is steeped in an eastern traditional philosophy of past life transgression and ascension few westerners are easily familiar with. It is as if the living breathing jungle itself woke up and decided to film this last act, and the animals of the forests crowded around to look in on this placid scene in solidarity and in silence. Languid magical realism lazily coupling with some humorous b-movie costuming that grows to haunt you for days, weeks after you’ve seen the film.The opening scene of a water buffalo stuck out deep the verdant green bush, unwilling to go back to the farm generates the understanding of this struggle between wild and tame, between hinged and unhinged, between this world and the next.
Uncle Boonmee is a fruit farmer in Thailand, so close to Laos that all characters speak Laotioan. His kidneys are failing and beyond any other device and contrivance director Apichatpong Weerasethakul uses, he is the utmost successful in conjuring an increasingly pervading sense of death. The luminal space between what is next and the here and now can no longer be distinguished and what is left is almost a pre-death wake, deep in the heart of a land whose borders can barely be defined on a map. We sit with Boonmee as his nurse and then later the ghost of his wife empties his bladder through an ostomy port on the side of his body. This is repeated every 20 minutes or so in the film as an integral structural narrative in advancing the story and heightening the sense of dread.
In between kidney cleaning time, we are treated to the languid pacing of a man on an afternoon walk with his sister-in-law, tying up loose ends, handing off property, belongings, recollecting his time here on this side as he smiles softly and picks fruit on his farm and tastes honey from his apiary. Outwardly as calm as a Budhist monk, he knowingly consoles his family who have gathered with him to say goodbye. They are afraid as death itself draws close and the younger members especially exhibit the twitchy modernism that dislikes things that cannot be explained and are better left in silence.
What was so excellently constructed was the utter fascination and love for each shot, each character, each bug denoted therein. The director couldn’t give a damn about how this film translated to modern western viewers and how the slow pace, the subject matter and pitter pat of dialogue would befuddle them all. That combined with his technical precision in filming the entire thing in 16 mm was, in my opinion, what won over the judges at Cannes. He simply didn’t care about making anything accessible to the masses. He turned his back to all cinematic traditions and possibly created a new genre, letting the ape-creatures, sexually ambitious fish, the green fecund maw of hills and caves all speak for themselves.
Weerasethakul himself said this was based on a true story, a man who could recall his many past lives as he lay dying in a Budhist temple. He constructed this whole film as a totem to “how we remember. So this guy is a super computer, you know….he remembers so much – and wants to remember before he’s gone.” But those are the last things you think about as you experience this film. Instead you are thinking about the sound, and the silence. The nothingness and the all encompassing. As Boonmee lays down for the final time in a giant cave, the cave he feels that he was born in, the ape creatures with their red glowing eyes, the moon, the ghosts and the humans surrounding him bear witness to the silence. The silence is all that is left. “I cannot shake the childhood memories,” the filmmaker says. “When I write, it’s always going back to that time. The feelings, and the fear, of darkness. Those unknown territories.”