The backstory on 'Boonmee' is one of the more fascinating aspects of this new Thai film on SFFS Screen.

'Boonmee's' Magic Lights Up SFFS Screen

Dennis Harvey March 4, 2011

Every once in a rare while, a narrative ambiguist, secular mystic and talented aesthete is allowed to transcend the cinematic loop of film festival-circuitry toward some mainstream acceptance. Examples range from Alexander Jodorowsky (El Topo), Peter Weir (with 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock) and Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line) to Aleksandr Sokurov (Mother and Son), Wai Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and David Gordon Greene—though you could argue the latter's early artiness (George Washington, All the Real Girls) bears almost no resemblance to his nimbly adaptive commercial breakthroughs. (I'll confess to liking stoner comedy Pineapple Express better than any of his opaque arthouse dramas.)

This is the heady company into which Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul launched himself with 2004's Tropical Malady, a “difficult,” unpinnable, quintessential “festival film” nonetheless so enchanting that arthouse audiences the world 'round finally had to see it. (Some waiting years for that opportunity.) He'd already attracted significant admiration for prior efforts. This sex-preferentially blurry, confoundingly two-part tiger tale Malady simply cemented international cineastes' perception of an emergent master. Fascinating if less exotic in appeal, 2006's Syndromes and a Century barely received U.S. release.

His latest Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, arrives here less than a year after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes—the first Thai film ever to do so. It opens Friday on SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, its 7:20 pm showing that night introduced by local actor-filmmaker Danny Glover, who was one of its executive producers. (This is one of those films that required participation from a long list of international production companies and funders to get made.)

If Syndromes was cryptic (though often quite funny), it nonetheless stayed relatively rooted in the recognizable, everyday world. Uncle Boonmee, by contrast, returns to the jungle—and the full-on magical realism—of Tropical Malady, its eerily beautiful nocturnal landscapes populated by almost casually interacting people, ghosts, talking animals, and combinations of all three. The lines between life and afterlife, biology and mythology grow as dreamily soft as the light in the film's 16mm photography.

The titular character (first-time actor Thanapat Saisaymar) is slowly dying of kidney disease on his farm in the northeast, near the Laos border that supplies him with many of his migrant workers. He's tended to primarily by visiting sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). At dinner one night they are joined by Boonmee's wife Huay (Nartthakarn Aphaiwonk), which is a little odd since she has been dead nearly two decades.

To complete the family reunion, another unexpected guest shows up: Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), the son who disappeared thirteen years ago. What's more, he returns a “monkey ghost” with glowing red eyes and long all-over fur a la Bigfoot, a change that apparently came about after he'd mated with one of the mystical species in the jungle nearby. It is typical of the spell Weerasethakul casts that we accept his characters' response to these otherworldly visitors. They're surprised, of course. But not that surprised.

Boonmee calls his illness “a result of my karma...I've killed too many Communists. And a lot of bugs on my farm.” (It may help unlock some of the film's mysteries to know that this feature is part of a multimedia project by the director about the village of Nabua in the northeastern Isan, where Thai Army forces violently suppressed Communist sympathizers in 1965. It's also inspired somewhat by a 1983 book written by a Buddhist temple abbot about a man who could indeed remember his past lives.)

Though not divided in the middle between two barely overlapping narratives like Malady and Syndromes, Uncle's more-or-less single storyline does go off on some wonderfully perplexing tangents. One involves a facially deformed princess who is wooed—and then some—by a talking catfish when her retinue stops by a jungle waterfall. (That's right: Talking catfish.) In its last lap the movie leaves the timeless countryside and heads to urbia, where we meet a very modern young monk. Are these among Boonmee's past and future incarnations? Your guess is as good as mine—and Weerasethakul has gone on record as preferring viewers make their individual interpretations rather than trying to second-guess his intent.

He's said Uncle is in part a tribute to the Thai genre films he grew up with. But its gentle, bemused, ambiguous fantasy is hardly identifiable in genre terms—even red-eyed Yeti here inspires wonder rather than terror. As with all his work, this latest is a sort of liquid chimera you need to let simply wash over you, suspending all normal expectations of linear logic and sussed-out “message.” It's the sort of movie that sends you out into the night finding familiar things suddenly a little stranger than before.