Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Kanokporn Thongaram, Natthakarn Aphaiwong, Jeerasak Kulhong
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Runtime: 114 min.
Language: Isan, Thai
Country: Thailand
Verdict: A masterpiece. A truly spiritual experience. And contains some of the great moments of the year.
Genre: Drama

        In Uncle Boonmee, Boonmee (Mr. Saisaymar) longs to be embraced by his wife, longs to be enveloped by her arms. He hugs her bosom, seeking the peace what a child seeks in his mother. When he’s dead he only worries if we would get to be with his wife. All of us have been there. All of us long for its warmth. There’s Jai, Boonmee’s worker, an illegal immigrant from Lao. He wishes to return home to marry his girl. And there’s Boonmee son, a photographer. The province Uncle Boonmee is set in, the village where Uncle Boonmee lives, the village that caused the Primitive Project, is probably immaterial here. Should be as well. It is a village, and a world unto its own. The son, Boonsong (Mr. Kulhong), ventures into the woods, comes across strange beings He ventures into their world, finds himself a woman, falls in love with her, and for her, becomes one of them. We all know those kinds.
        Here is where I seek that filmmaker closest to my heart – Jean-Pierre Melville. And I seek his men – the famous Samourai, the titular cop in Un Flic, the ex-cop in Le Cercle Rouge, and many more – all not lonely men, but loners. Hermits. Men given to solitude. Movies, and filmmakers, often in their flight of coolness, bring us such characters. That is the fantasy they bring to us, that is the fantasy they dream of, and for you and me, with favorite films like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, that is the fantasy some of us seek, some of us want to be embraced by, some of us probably feeling safe within. As an audience, what does that make us? What is the medium then – masculine or feminine?
        I ask not the question just out of a mere whim, but because Uncle Boonmee inspires me to. Mr. Weerasethakul’s seems to be a rare gentle and noble and dare I say a monk of a film. If there’s anything like a true liberal in this world this film is that. It is Uncle Zosima. Every morning my ritual includes chanting prayers while I go about my chores, and while sometimes I truly remember God, sometimes I’m merely blurting out words while fantasizing of how Nadal would complete the Rafa slam. Sometimes, when I’m truly tired, I make a pact with God and compromise on some of these prayers, and then feel a little guilty too. But not today. I had to watch Uncle Boonmee, and for some reason I felt within my rights to compromise, for I was feeling God all about me. There is not as much as a moment, or a frame, that has anything to do with hate, or condescension, or prejudice, or contempt. Even the accidental squashing or conscious electrocution of a bug is a source of guilt just about in the same ballpark as killing enemies in the war. It seems to be made by a man who has all the faith in all of God’s creation, and humbly stands before it. And stands before cinema too for it is a God in itself. A God that makes everything – the fantastical and the real and the mystical – feel possible, existing together within the boundaries of the same frame. It is a frame of this world, and by this world, and one could be both a monk and a monster. And Uncle Boonmee is a seemingly pure devotee, a film that is grand but not ostentatious, a film that is spiritual but not preachy, a film that is liberal but not self righteous.
        But then, dear reader, all of the compassion and goodwill and humility and tolerance can be a deliberate right, a performance of the most disciplined and solemn kind? I ask because every element of our world that has the dynamics of a God – the government, the military, the society, the capitalist organization, monastery, cinema – is inherently an instrument of power and order. Power in an established order is what it seeks, and that implicitly makes it authoritarian. The government fears the military, the society fears the outsider, the capitalist fears the socialist, the religion fears the other radical belief. And most importantly, the monastery, standing probably a step above the religion on the tolerance ladder, is most fearful, or paranoid of the science, of the new technology, of the rational, of Ivan Karamazov. Wouldn’t true tolerance be above this paranoia, and instead of preaching against it, or powerlessly hoping it would vanish, wouldn’t it welcome the rationalist with open arms?
        I might be playing the skeptic here, but then Uncle Boonmee does provide me with a last hour concerned preaching that fills me a certain degree of suspicion. Till that hour, Uncle Boonmee is Uncle Boonmee, but then somehow it seems, the God is not so much concerned with its devotee as much it is concerned with him becoming a mouthpiece, or a martyr. We experience the simplicities of the rural, the easy access, the primitivist pleasures. Uncle Boonmee’s son has chosen a life that literally follows a primitive course, and as Boonmee recalls a dream, that seems to identify itself as a set of images from a light and sound machine, he sees himself as a relic from the past, and this machine as a relic from the future. It is a dream, where a man is sent to the future, and his past is recalled by the machine. The past, the present and the future converge, all at the same end. In its form, and in its theme, it is tough not to be reminded of Chris Marker’s La jetée.
        Mr. Weerasethakul has mentioned that Uncle Boonmee serves as an ode to film too, and as more and more filmmakers are adopting the ease of the digital format, the good old fashioned film projector with its reels is now an endangered species. I respect the nostalgia, but then, I am not sure I approve of the prejudice one feels for the new technology. Whenever I’m reminded of the lost Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, I tell to myself how democratic our medium as become, and with a transformation in its form (from film to digital), it no longer is the slave to the authoritarian tendencies of a capitalistic organization. Is the medium becoming more socialist? Probably. X-Men Origins: Wolverine would’ve never happened, and I would never have been writing about this film were it not for this exponential shift towards the socialist end of the spectrum. I believe, the medium of ours is getting more personal than ever before.
        For a film of faith, and Uncle Boonmee is a film of supreme faith, it is strange that it contains such a pessimistic view of the future. Can true faith work without optimism? I don’t know, and I often see this contradiction in a lot of places. Uncle Boonmee believes in its God and in its land of mystical possibilities, where the cave with its apes and constellations reminds one of 2001: A Space Odyssey and probable alien contact, where the country and the political boundaries are of no real or practical concern, and where death is not a full stop, but merely an exclamation point, and ancestors and death and the living and the past and the present all live together existing within the same frame. It takes it all for a fact. And yet, it is so glum about the future. The modern generation of e-mails and credit cards and pop music is apparently so far from true spirituality that even a night of monkhood is tough, and where the existence is restless without money or television or hustle and bustle. The spirituality of the mystic land doesn’t exist. The faith to wait for one’s son to return for years doesn’t exist. What exists is the hard facts of reality – the military rule, the political boundaries, the corruption. In that way it is a thematic partner to whatever Mr. Sorkin intended for The Social Network.
        When we were kids, me and my brother once had a wall of our drawing room swarming with little ants. It was a Saturday morning, I believe, and we pulled our slippers and went absolutely berserk with our stamping. For days after that, I remember, I felt I had seen the apparition of an ant. I thought it was the soul of it. I wasn’t feeling guilty, but the apparition was a reminder of my guilt. I have killed numerous cockroaches, and rats, and mosquitoes and flies, often in great excitement, but then that murderous rampage is the only image my memory always serves me with. I’ve been brought up in the urban world, and all I guess there’s mysticism and spirituality and optimism to be felt within the reality of our existence.

1 comment:

Amar said...

I found it esoteric, crypticness stretched to the limit. It was partially spiritual, for sure. But overall, the experience was unsatisfactory.