Is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives a realist movie with surreal aspects, or a surreal movie with realist aspects? For all the queries the film poses about living and dying, the sixth directorial feature of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weereasethakul (you can just call him “Joe”, though), the previous question winds up being its most pressing– for me, anyhow. Arguably any movie which includes talking catfish (a somewhat libidinous talking catfish, for that matter) and begins by drifting through a depiction of one of the title’s past lives could easily be called surreal, especially when taking into consideration that these characteristics are not the film’s strangest– since the latter occurs in reality, just in a different life and time, and the former crops up in a dream sequence– but Uncle Boonmee grounds itself so firmly in reality through its technical merits and performances that labeling Weerasethakul’s film as surreal seems like a false distinction.
I think the fairest and most honest answer is that Uncle Boonmee walks a fine line between both, being almost neo-realist in terms of its presentation and its performance while also reaching Lynchian heights of oddness in a number of its plot developments. You can’t call a movie with erotic catfish sex realist any more than you can call a movie with such no-frills acting and composition a mind-bender. Truthfully these questions are somewhat superfluous and unimportant, because none of them speak to the premise of Weerasethakul’s film, but the contrast between Uncle Boonmee‘s alternatingly weird and normal elements does set the tone for the picture’s reflections on a death.
Specifically, that death belongs to the titular Boonmee, a man living out the end of his days at the hands of kidney failure. Situated at his farm, nestled in a forested haven in Thailand’s jungles, Boonmee relies on his sister-in-law Jen, her nephew Tong, and Jaai, an undocumented Laotian who also happens to be a male nurse, for care. As far as plot goes, Uncle Boonmee finds itself in something of a short supply; this isn’t a complex story in which secrets are teased at and revealed after much ceremony. This is about one man preparing himself to face his own inevitable end– which, if you believe in reincarnation, doesn’t honestly seem all that scary, just uncertain. Will Boonmee come back as a rock? A bird? Maybe one of the honey bees he keeps on his farm? Regardless of where his karma may take him, Boonmee is ready.
Be that as it may he finds himself visited by the spirits of his past, in the form of his dead wife Huay and their long-lost son Boonsong. Huay looks as beautiful as she did before her own death; Boonsong, on the other hand, appears to have interrupted his King Kong cosplay to reunite with his father and say his final goodbyes. As the dead gravitate to Boonmee, questions of what one might be reincarnated as in another life abate, and a more interesting question arises– how many lives have each of these characters lived? This could be Boonmee’s third, if we accept the film’s opening scene, in which a water buffalo treks through a forest, as well as the aforementioned catfish sequence as his first two lives, but for all we know the film could actually be portraying his fourth life, or even his tenth, which is to speak nothing of what life the rest of the characters might be on.
On paper, Uncle Boonmee sounds charmingly quirky with its bizarreness and ghostly visitations; truthfully, the film is anything but. Weerasethakul certainly is peering into a world where death only leads us to our next life, an encouraging thought for those of us who are afraid of the dark, but he doesn’t unearth much by way of mirth or laughter. Uncle Boonmee can’t be called a lugubrious or pessimistic work, but it’s certainly somber in atmosphere and tone even at its most hopeful. Weerasethakul isn’t mining for joy in his exploration of his protagonist’s journey to come to terms with his own demise, or presenting the afterlife as something warm and fuzzy and comforting; death, here, isn’t good or bad, it just is, and the film’s lack of celebration leads into its frank examination of the span of a human life.
That sense of solemnity is paired with a drawn-out pace; this isn’t a picture that’s in any hurry to get where it’s going. I think for many, that may pose something of a problem– again, Uncle Boonmee‘s narrative isn’t high-conflict, and one could make the argument that it’s “about nothing” (which only makes that person a boor). Couple that perceived sensibility with Weerasethakul’s penchant for using long, uninterrupted takes at every opportunity and his tendency to linger just a bit more than strictly necessary on an image, and the result is a picture that moves slowly. But Uncle Boonmee isn’t sluggish; it’s deliberate, progressing with purpose, and Weerasethakul and his cinematographers compose each image so beautifully that that measured, unhurried sense of momentum is never felt at all.
What strikes me most about Uncle Boonmee lies in the contradiction between the film’s minimalist philosophies and its more surreal details. Weerasethakul shouldn’t be able to get away with making a movie with such a strongly established foothold in reality while also indulging in varying degrees of strangeness. Ultimately, the film is haunting, hypnotic, and incredibly lovely to behold while being rife with meaning and very emotionally potent. By the time the film’s unexpected climax arrives, I can’t in good conscience say that Uncle Boonmee provides a satisfactory answer to its characters ruminations on human mortality, but then again I don’t know if it needs to or if it even ought to– death, as filtered through Weerasethakul’s vision, is a personal journey, and the mysteries surrounding it are best answered by the individual.