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.