It's well known that peoples of the far east feel a closer connection to the afterlife than us westerners. As a result much of their cinematic output plays looser with ancestral or supernatural elements, and their ghost stories are easier to label as magic realism. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a thai film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It won the Palm D'or at last years Cannes Film Festival, and despite its languid pacing and contemplative approach it is, above all else, a pretty juicy ghost story.
Uncle Boonmee is a bee keeper on dialysis living on a farm in the middle of the Thai jungle. His sister-in-law Jen and her nephew Tong come to visit their ailing relative, and discover that the jungle has an otherworldly mysticism. Yet when Huay, Boonmee's dead wife, materializes out of thin air during dinner, nobody makes too big of a fuss. And when Boonmee's long lost son, Boonsong, makes a surprise visit transformed into an ape like figure called a "Monkey Ghost", there is hardly a raised eyebrow.
How the film trivializes the extraordinary in such ways is what makes it such fascinating viewing. In me it recalled Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu -- another piece of far east film poetry about spirits and their rather opaque connection to the living. To easterners like Mizoguchi and Weerasethakul there is no "other side." The living and the dead aren't separate, but float in and out of each other's communal space like mist moving through a darkened jungle canopy. The jungle of "Uncle Boonmee" is a character in itself, one that knows not time of day nor man from beast. The director's camera lingers on haunting imagery turning the creature filled rainforest surrounding Boonmee's enchanted estate into the Western Woods of Sleepy Hollow. Out of the ever-dark landscape appear the red eyes of the ubiquitous Monkey Ghosts who stalk the land and keep watch.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a pensive and visionary work of high art filmmaking. Those turned off by Tarkovsky style editing and camera work -- the kind that savors every image and detail so observantly that every frame becomes a challenging still photograph -- should steer clear. And viewers longing to be intellectually stimulated should bring their A-game because this is a puzzling, existential soul-search about life, death, and those pesky, red-eyed Monkey Ghosts guarding the space between.