Many of the curious effects in the dream-world of the movingly poetic UBWCRHPL derive from Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s intent to depict the inner state of his hero, Uncle Boonmee.
Uncle Boonmee is having it rough, he’s terminally ill with a liver complaint, undergoing peritoneal dialysis, and taking metaphysical and spiritual stock of his life as he drifts internally to embrace his final memories. His deathbed pilgrimage unfolds in surreal overlaps of biographical thought – the past lives of the title. These adventures include encounters with ghost monkeys (perhaps representing those killed in the war against communism, and Boonmee’s guilt in the part he played) and dead family members. We also have insights into his previous incarnations as a water buffalo and a catfish – and inner city vignettes situated in a bar, a prayer room and a sparse hotel dormitory. The intimation is that Boonmee’s odyssey is a consoling journey that leads him into a vast tranquillity and a cosmic peace with his own existence.
Many films find their form through the subjective state of their heroes. The bleak and violent jazz of Travis Bickle’s world, or the slow motion, sportsman-like time dilation of Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta, or the off-kilter and fractured editing of Shutter Island’s Teddy Daniels, to enlist a roll call of Scorsese reprobates. In these films the nature of the hero determines the tone and character of the on-screen action.
So what of Boonmee? Like in other dream-like films, for example Mulholland Drive, Mirror and Last Year in Marienbad – it is as if the protagonists (and therefore the film itself) are operating in a kind of theta-wave frame of thought. Theta-wave? As we engage in different activities, the wavelengths of our mental function change to suit what we are doing. These are separate, clear and distinct states, like gears in a car. In alpha state the human mind is at repose, perhaps in meditation, strolling through a garden, or resting after a hard task. The beta state is sharp, one of alert concentration, the state of a politician fielding debate on Question Time or a stand up comedian mid-routine. Theta state is much closer to the dream zone, it is often the state in which artists and business-folk discover their winning ideas. A person who is driving and finds they can’t recall the last five miles is in Theta state. To recognise and control these states within ourselves is to begin to engage in powerful levels of self-control.
In its beguiling and mysterious attitude towards an anthology of moments circulating a theme – Boonmee’s most appropriate neighbour may be David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Events unfold without the audience being given explicit guidance. It is this unpatronising approach that ensures that the film reverberates with a multitude of meanings personal to each spectator.
Boonmee’s objective is perhaps best summed by this letter sent by a woman from Gorky to the director Tarkovsky after the release of Mirror, he had been inundated with letters of cool indifference and heated vehemence on the supposed impenetrability of his film. ‘Thank you for Mirror… my childhood was like that… only how did you know about it… there was that wind and the thunderstorm… and how beautifully the film shows the awakening of a child’s consciousness, of his thought… And lord, how true… I felt for the first time in my life that I was not alone.’ And another letter from a teacher ‘The film is compassionate, honest, relevant… and everyone who spoke said, ‘The film is about me.’
Cinematically, Boonmee’s heartbeats could be traced back to the death-bed ruminations of Bergman’s The Silence or his Cries and Whispers. A more obvious literary precedent is the William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying. The self-explanatory great American experimental novel that contains a five word chapter that states simply ‘My mother is a fish.’ Uncle Boonmee itself is no stranger to unusual flourishes. In one of the most incredible sex scenes ever committed to film a palanquin borne princess wades into a waterfall pool to have sex with a catfish.
This is a tasetful and elegant handling that rates up there with Henry and the girl next door submerging themselves into Henry’s bed in Eraserhead or the magnificent Naomi Watts ‘angst wank’ in Mullholland Drive, though all these are mere localised clitoral orgasms in comparison to the almighty body-shaking vaginal orgasm that is on display in Weird Science. I always like to think that the scene in Weird Science seems to cunningly represent the female and the male orgasm simultaneously. In the John Hughes film a party goer’s evening is interrupted when ‘weird science’ erupts through the house and a suction vacuum forcefully removes her garments and sucks her up a phallic chimney only to ejaculate her from its top – sending her flying into a nearby lake, legs kicking. It’s the kind of risqué visual pun that fits that type of cinema like a glove.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that Boonmee is a wonder, a majestical film that relates to a simple life in a balmy corner of the world, a life tangled up in the horrors of conflict but not defined by them. There are voices of descent, but if you try on the emperor’s new clothes, you may find that they fit you.
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