Much has been written, not least by me, about the best way to approach the films of the Thai New Wave director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Most responses seem to fall into one of three categories :
The first is made up of rejectionist accusations of wilful obscurantism. The second is composed of equally ill-judged, but somewhat more charitable, suggestions that his films contain a profound political and/or spiritual message that we are unable to decode because we lack a sufficient knowledge of Thai culture. Both of these views are attempts to articulate a sense of frustration with the fact that, despite his obvious technical and artistic skill, Weerasethakul is somehow failing to communicate his ideas in a way that makes them accessible to anyone who is not him. This sense of frustration has also resulted in the emergence of a rather more drastic category of reaction.
The third category is best summed up by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that we suffer from “a lack of analytical context in which to place this material”. Indeed, my own reaction to Weerasethakul’s work is that his films are both so obviously brilliant and so utterly incomprehensible that we need to develop an entirely new critical language in which to discuss his work. A language focused not upon ‘narrative’ and ‘character’ but upon mood and atmosphere, the careful layering of images, colours and sounds to evoke emotional responses. Under this view, Weerasethakul is effectively bypassing our traditional analytical tools and the tricks of cognition we use to make sense of cinema (and the world) in order to plug directly into our brains.
Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (a.k.a. Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat) constitutes a serious challenge to this third approach to the director’s work. It is a film that revisits many of the director’s favoured themes and images but places them into a much more traditionally cinematic framework. Far from operating on the level of pure sensation, unadorned by critical analysis, Uncle Boonmee is a film littered with genre tropes and familiar ideas. Ideas that not only make the work much easier to understand, but actually prompt us to revisit many of the director’s earlier works and ask whether — despite this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes — something has not been lost along the way. Something beautiful and mysterious.
The film introduces us to Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an ageing tamarind farmer whose recent success has allowed him not only to hire immigrant labour but also to start a bee-keeping business and build a cool concrete basement beneath his traditional wooden house. However, though Boonmee enjoys a great deal of financial security, a cloak of sadness hangs about his withered shoulders. A cloak stitched from past regrets (he admits that he killed a lot of ‘commies’ during his military service), lost loves (both his wife and his son disappeared) and a growing sense of his own imminent demise. Indeed, despite Boonmee’s relative spryness, he is not a well man. End-stage renal failure beckons and Boonmee has been forced to hire a local boy named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to serve as his nurse and ensure that he receive the dialysis treatments that keep him alive.
As his kidney function declines, Boonmee takes to thinking more and more about his past. A past that suddenly looms up at him out of the forest in the shape of his dead wife’s ghost and his son who was long ago taken by the forest and transformed into a monkey ghost. These two manifestations of the supernatural ably reflect Boonmee’s feelings about death: On the one hand, death may allow him to be re-united with his dead wife or, at the very least, to be free of the travails and sickness of his current existence. On the other hand, death promises a departure for a world that is strange and terrifying, a world that can reach out and grab you at a moment’s notice, a world that makes little sense to men such as Boonmee. Amidst beautifully shot flashbacks to what we can only assume are previous lives (one as a water buffalo that ran away from its owners and another as an aged princess who has sex with a magical cat fish in order to regain her youth), Boonmee chats to his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and tries to come to terms with his regrets before following his ghostly wife into the forest where he dies peacefully in his sleep.
Veterans of Weerasethakul’s films will recognise much in Uncle Boonmee.
As in Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Tropical Malady (2004), Weerasethakul sets up a tension between the mundane realities of the world of men and the fantastical and romantic possibilities of the world of spirits. Indeed, Boonmee is presented as something of an interstitial figure who passes, at different times, through both worlds; one minute he is in the world of men, speaking French with his Laotian employees before watching them sort tamarind fruit, and the next he is sitting down to dinner with the ghost of his dead wife and a terrifying red-eyed creature that was once his son. Boonmee’s imminent death means that he is about to pass out of the world of men and into the world of spirits but he is held in the world of men by medical technology. Weerasethakul’s parents were both doctors and, as in Syndromes and a Century, the mundane and unglamorous realities of medical treatment serve as a counter-weight to the director’s mystical instincts.
While Syndromes and a Century saw the forest serving as a kind of benign reminder of warmer emotions and happier possibilities, both Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours (2002) presented the forest as an inherently magical place. A place where myth became real and all possibilities were made tangible. Uncle Boonmee continues to present the forest as profoundly alien to the values of civilisation anchored in the realities of medical practice but the film presents a far more nuanced account of that opposition. Indeed, both Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours present the forest as a place where romantic possibilities are made real. Oppressed sexuality and unfulfilled romantic yearnings find their fruition only once the characters step out of the world of men and into the world of the forest. However, Uncle Boonmee presents the forest as a place of darkness and danger as well as light and love. A place where savage things dwell and people die. A place not only where possibilities are born but where possibilities are closed off in that most emphatically mortal of ways. Indeed, this darkening of Weerasethakul’s treatment of the forest not only contributes to Uncle Bonmee feeling more intellectually substantial than many of Weerasethakul’s earlier films, it also serves to make it a good deal more accessible to Western audiences as Weerasethakul’s depiction of the forest chimes almost perfectly with its place in our own cultural imagination.
In his excellent book Forests – The Shadow of Civilization (1992), Robert Pogue Harrison states that :
in the religions, mythologies and literatures of the West, the forest appears as a place where the logic of distinction goes astray. Or where our subjective categories are confounded. Or where perceptions become promiscuous with one another, disclosing latent dimensions of time and consciousness. In the forest the inanimate may suddenly become animate, the god turns into a beast, the outlaw stands for justice, Rosalind appears as a boy the virtuous knight degenerates into a wild man, the straight line forms a circle, the ordinary gives way to the fabulous. — pp. x
It is when Weerasethakul deals with the transition between worlds that his films most come to resemble works of genre. Indeed, it is difficult to watch Uncle Boonmee without being reminded of the works of Hiyao Miyazaki whose Stugio Ghibli films including My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Porco Rosso (1992), Spirited Away (2001) and Ponyo (2008) all revolve around collisions between the mundane world of men and the exciting and colourful worlds of magic and spirit. Indeed, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) features an all-out war between an encroaching human civilisation and the arboreal spirit realm that culminates with the brutal decapitation of the Spirit of the Forest by the ruler of the iconically-named human inhabitation Iron Town.
Like many of the works of Miyazaki, Uncle Boonmee presents itself as an intrusion fantasy. The nature of this genre form is brilliantly detailed by the critic Farah Mendlesohn in her Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008). The intrusion fantasy, according to Mendlesohn, presents the fantastical as
the bringer of chaos. It is the beast in the bottom of the garden, or the elf seeking assistance. It is horror and amazement. It takes us out of our safety without taking us from our place. It is recursive. The intrusion fantasy is not necessarily unpleasant, but it has at its base the assumption that normality is organized, and that when the fantastic retreats the world, while not necessarily unchanged, returns to predictability — at least until the next element of the fantastic intrudes. — pp. xxi-xxii
The problem facing Weerasethakul is one of increasing familiarity. When he had the farm boy turn into a tiger in Tropical Malady, the move was so unexpected and so magically weird that it seemed to transgress all known laws of cinematic story-telling. It worked but it did not work for any obvious reason. As a quasi-narrative technique it took a defiant step off of the beaten cinematic path. However, three films later and the same excursions from the beaten path have started to wear grooves in the earth. Now, when we are asked to step off the beaten track we are no longer all at sea, we are in familiar territory. Territory made familiar not only by Weerasethakul’s repeated use of the same techniques but also by a dawning realisation that Weerasethakul is not so much forging his own path through the forest as uncovering a path that already existed. Mendlesohn perfectly articulates the challenge of the intrusion fantasy and, in so doing, explains why it is that Uncle Boonmee is such a profoundly unsatisfying cinematic experience.
The intrusion fantasy, according to Mendlesohn, demands “constant amazement”, its incursions into our world are meant to be alienating and puzzling but this effect is difficult to maintain :
The required awestruck or skeptical tone is tricky and may contribute to the preference for stylistic realism in order to maintain the contrast between the normal world and the fantastic intrusion. It also may explain the tendency of the intrusion fantasy to continually introduce new protagonists, and to up the ante on the nature or number of the horrors. Horror, amazement, and surprise are difficult to maintain if the protagonist has become accustomed to them. Escalation — of many kinds — is an important element of the rhetoric. — pp. xxii
Uncle Boonmee suffers not only for the fact that its protagonists are completely accepting of the fantastical but also for the fact that his repeated use of the same fantastical motifs mean that his audience are now accepting of his use of the fantastical. In other words, when Boonmee travels into the forest and encounters weird creatures, we are not surprised. We are not surprised because we have seen this type of thing happen before in Weerasethakul’s films. The fantastic has lost its power to shock and estrange. It has become mundane. We are as blasé about it as Weerasethakul’s characters.
Weerasethakul’s decision to re-use the same set of techniques in Uncle Boonmee not only deprives this particular film of much of its potential power, it also serves to undermine many of his earlier and more interesting films. Indeed, by failing to escalate his use of the fantastical, Weerasethakul has effectively defused the capacity for estrangement captured by his earlier works. Uncle Boonmee is accessible enough that it provides us with a useful crib sheet with which to make sense of his use of magical forests and spiritual incursions in films like Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century. By failing to escalate and innovate Weerasethakul has not only undermined his entire body of work, he has also undermined his own position as something of a cinematic ‘incursion’.
Just as his magical forest no longer has the power to shock or amaze us, the same is true of his incursions into the cinematic landscape. By lapsing into a familiar and comprehensible cinematic rhetoric, Weerasethakul no longer appears as a strange and visionary genius whose bizarre techniques and strange cinematic textures demand a whole new critical vocabulary. He now comes across as a far more mundane creature: a cinematic fantasist who uses art house techniques rather than special effects to portray the numinous and the spiritual and by submitting himself to existing critical vocabularies, Weerasethakul also opens himself up to criticism.
Uncle Boonmee is a film that feels oddly unfinished, like a train of thought that has derailed before arriving at its final destination.
The film is reportedly based upon a Thai novel called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Written by a monk but based upon a real-life Boonmee, the book deals with a man who can see beyond the vanishing point of karma’s great wheel to his previous incarnations. Though I have not read the book or found any serious discussion of it, one can imagine a book in which a man’s capacity to see his past lives dovetails with his desire to look back over his current life in view of his impending death. Just as a person might claim not to ‘be’ the person or animal he was in his previous lives, a person might just as easily claim not to ‘be’ the person they were when they committed some action in their past for which they feel a good deal of regret or culpability. Indeed, is the Boonmee depicted in the film the same Boonmee who ‘killed a lot of commies’? is he the same Boonmee who escaped as a water buffalo or had sex with a catfish in order to retain his youth? By featuring a man who is not only looking back over his own life but who also seems capable of experiencing elements of his previous lives, Weerasethakul seems poised to reflect on the issue of personal identity through time but he somehow never manages to get round to it. Boonmee mentions his past but draws no conclusions. We are shown vignettes we assume to be part of Boonmee’s previous lives but they are never explicitly referred to, let alone explained. We have to rely upon the film’s title alone to make sense of these vignettes. It is almost as though Weerasethakul has assembled the ingredients of a great cinematic dish only to decide, in the end, not to step into the kitchen. Of course, not being familiar with the source material it seems dishonest and unhinged to criticise Weerasethakul for failing to make the most of his adaptation but these different forms of remembrance sit so neatly together that it is utterly frustrating that Weerasethakul fails to connect the dots or do anything with the few fresh ideas that he does bother to introduce.
It is almost as though, by repeating the same string of beautiful nonsense syllables over and over again, Weerasethakul has allowed us to recognise a few words and, upon recognising enough words to make out a few of the sentences, the flaws in his grammar have become increasingly apparent and increasingly grating.
This trade-off between accessibility and the raw power of cognitive estrangement features as a theme in Weerasethakul’s first film. Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) is billed as an experimental documentary but in truth it more closely resembles a game of cinematic chinese whispers in which Weerasethakul and his crew travel around Thailand asking various people to add a sentence to a story. Initially, the story is a strange one that makes little sense but soon the strangeness is beaten back by the decision by some participants to put a science fictional spin on the story. Suddenly the strangeness is replaced by a sense of familiarity as quirks are explained away and familiar tropes and techniques come to dominate the story’s foreground. By the time the film concludes with a theatre company putting on the story as a semi-improvised performance, the sense of spontaneity and Otherness has entirely dissipated in favour of an impression of a poorly written mis-match of ugly ideas jammed on stage by a group of talentless actors. Possibilities are eclipsed. Weirdness is tidied away. Otherness is tamed.
My great fear is that the arc of Weerasethakul’s story in Mysterious Objects at Noon will come to mirror the arc of his career as a director. From the magnificently Other to the painfully familiar. From the strange to the mundane. From the new to the tired. This time it is not the critic but Weerasethakul himself who needs to create a new vocabulary for self-expression.