The Distance to Our Graves and the Lives that We Have Lived
by Don Jaucian
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
D: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
C: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
The beguiling beauty of myths has always been the core that Apichatpong Weerasethakul has built his films upon. His films sway like the trees that surround his characters. They rattle in the gentle hum of anxiety, scattering in tales of mythical beasts and forms of reincarnation. But instead of imposing these elements as restrictions, Weerasethakul places them as portals to the Wild Blue Yonder, portkeys to a more complex schema about life, the universe, and everything.
Such grand scope places his Palme D’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in a delicate position. It is a slingshot that treads the line between personal histories and fiction, creating characters that question the boundaries of our daily lives, religious beliefs, and their link with the afterlife.
Weerasethakul has always been fascinated with the afterlife and reincarnation. Uncle Boonmee is his treatise in transcending worldly desires, leaving a faint trace of the lives we have lived and, in this case, Weerasethakul depicts them in lingering presences of human spirits, monkey ghosts, catfish shamans, lonely princesses, and a water buffalo struggling to break free.
The ghosts in Uncle Boonmee serve as a visible link to our pasts. Boonmee’s wife, Huay, who suddenly materializes one night at the dining table, is both a preservation of her past misgivings and regrets and a glimpse to what awaits Boonmee when he dies of his illness. The scene then becomes a family reunion when they are joined by Boonmee’s son, Boonsong, who has turned into a monkey ghost, covered in hair, with red eyes flaring like signals from the dead. This increases Boonmee’s curiosity about the afterlife.
Boonmee’s afterlife is a temple. The family of the deceased comfort the dead with their offerings and prayers while the spirit roams restlessly, hearing imprints of the living and the memories that they have made. Spirits are transformed into bestial creatures, carrying the weight of their past lives and the futures that they have been given. These ghosts converse with the living, talking about the minutiae of their daily routines, interacting as though death doesn’t exist at all.
Weerasethakul’s dream states are never as demented as David Lynch’s or David Cronenberg’s. They are unhurried, occuring at solemn paces that spread out like cards mapping out our most intimate desires. Junctures exist in folds, overlapping fabrics and parcels of different segments of our lives. Weerasethakul finds more beauty in the stillness, creating an alternate plane of existence where our imperfections are slowly carved out to the tune of a pop song while we wonder about what awaits us beyond the veil.