Beloved of Cannes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are deeply arthouse. Since Blissfully Yours from 2002 won ‘Un Certain Regard’, Weerasethakul’s films have won prize after prize at festivals all over Europe, and Uncle Boonmee won the director the Palme Dor, this year. Weerasethakul is one of those directors for whom linear narrative seems an impediment rather than an aid. In Blissfully yours after rather languid scenes in hospitals, the central couple drive off into the countryside and the film coalesces around their al fresco bonking. Unsurprisingly, Weerasethakul’s films have often been censored by the Thai authorities (one of the tags for the IMDB reference for Blissfully yours is ‘uncircumcised penis’!), but his previous film Syndromes and a Century was censored for ‘inappropriately’ having monks playing a guitar and an remote controlled aeroplane. Possibly because both his parents were hospital doctors, hospitals have often been the starting point for Weerasethakul’s films. Syndromes and a Century, takes place in hospitals and dentists’. That last film featured a split time narrative in which relationships are seen growing in two different time frames.
Uncle Boonmee starts with a lovely view under moonlight of a tethered waterbuffalo fanned with incense. The animal breaks free and charges deep into the undergrowth from which it is rescued gently and respectfully by its owner. Then we turn to the tamarind farm in the countryside to which Uncle Boonmee has returned, and returned we understand, to die. He has brought his Lao medic, Jiaa, who conducts a crude dialysis for Boonmee, two and three times a day. Boonmee is accompanied by his sister-in-law, Jen, and his cousin Tong. At their first evening meal, they are joined by the ghost of his wife, Huay, and deeply discomforting ghost of his son, Boonsong, who disappeared into the forest, mated with a monkey ghost and has now become one; with luminous red eyes and Chewbacca-styled black body hair.
After a wander round the farm sampling the tamarind, and the tamarind and maize flavoured honey from Boonmee’s bees, the film suddenly moves to a disfigured Princess being carried through the forest on a palanquin. Stopping by the pool of a waterfall, the princess looks into the water and sees the unblemished woman, she seeks to be. Then she gets into conversation with a catfish who proceeds to seduce her in the pool, itself. The film then moves back to Uncle Boonmee who is escorted into a spooky cave network by the ghost of his wife, his cousin and sister-in-law, and where he dies.
The last half an hour of the film follows the sister-in-law, Jen, as she deals with the funeral and its aftermath, including a rather odd, and innocent, encounter with one of Thailand’s young men coming to the end of his compulsory three months as a monk.
Weerasethakul makes poignant reference to the recent history of this beautiful country, in particular the insurgencies that have blighted Thailand’s recent history, and the myriad dialects that colour life there, and the way that might affect Boonmee’s karma. For all its strange plotting, this film is always engrossing. The performances, particularly by the non-professional Thanapat Saisaymar as Boonmee, and Jenjira Pongpas as Jen are often deeply affecting, with their still, quiet reactions to the apparitions that crowd them.