I never expected Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul to become this popular. For one, his name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul (but he insists you call him "Joe"). Moreover, his films are gauzy reveries of a deceptively inaccessible variety - from the exquisite corpse of 'Mysterious Object at Noon' to the tender queer romance of his bifurcated masterpiece 'Tropical Malady,' Joe's films are all fractured abstractions of what it feels like to be alive on this earth, and how slippery that feeling can be. His non-linear stories are gleefully surprising and often very romantic, but they can feel as impenetrable as listening to a stranger share a dream about their friends, and ever since Joe dramatically ended his working relationship with Shia Labeouf his commercial prospects have looked rather dim (note: Joe has never actually worked with Shia Labeouf, but now that I've planted the seed I'm sure Shia's agent can hardly think about anything else).
But it's amazing what the film world's most prestigious prize can do for someone. 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' won the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and now this movie about red-eyed monkey gods and sexually adventurous catfish (something in which the movie 'Catfish' is sorely lacking) is set to be distributed by Strand Releasing in 2011, and is one of the hottest tickets of the New York Film Festival.
Based on a book which is only available for purchase at Thailand's Buddhist institutions, 'Uncle Boonmee' is the final component of Joe's "Primitive" project, a multi-media affair set in Thailand's remote and verdant Isan region with a violent political history (1965 saw the Thai army murderously purging the territory of communist sympathizers). 'Uncle Boonmee' doesn't directly allude to that period very often, but as Joe introduces you to Boonmee, his failing kidneys, and his visiting family, the extent to which the jungle landscape has been reborn is palpable even for those of us who know about Thailand only what we were shown in 'The Beach.'
'Uncle Boonmee' is rather accessible as far as Joe's films go, and it introduces its players in an inviting fashion. Boonmee is dying a very pleasant and good-natured death, and his nephew and widowed sister have come to visit in the hopes of nursing him back to health. As they dine on their porch one night, Boonmee's wife and son casually show up. The only thing is that Boonmee's wife and son have been dead for a long time, and the latter is now a monkey god who looks like this:
What follows is a narrative of ideas, wherein the various scenes are bound together only by familiar faces and a network of primordial questions that become most clear in retrospect. As the film unfolds we learn predictably little about the individual characters, but it's their shared commonalities rather than their unique traits that make them of interest to Joe. From Boonmee's nephew (Joe regular Sakda Kaewbuadee) to the legendary princess whose fate sharply cleaves the film in two (and sees her getting knocked up by that frisky catfish), everyone experiences a transformation of some kind, escaping or otherwise abandoning their shell (monk's robe, human form, communist identity, etc...) in favor of a new shape. The movie adheres to the widely understood Buddhist notion of reincarnation - the karma police are always on the prowl, and people are constantly being recycled into the earthly ether because - as one character puts it - "Heaven is overrated."
Joe has always been obsessed with how the ambiguity of the human spirit allows it to diffuse across our world in ways both visible and otherwise, and here he crafts a reasonably entertaining feature dedicated to the kind of transfiguration he reserved for a single character in earlier works like 'Tropical Malady.' 'Uncle Boonmee' was gorgeously photographed on Super 16mm film, with Joe often shooting day for night to soften the jungle with cool blue hues, and better make his characters appear to be as much a part of the leafy terrain as the dirt and trees. But it's the digital episodes that linger, with recurring broadcasts of old Thai TV shows suggesting that the world is not formed only by those who we readily accept as "being alive."
It's a film of endless possibilities (it eventually establishes a through-line between Joe's previous feature 'Syndromes and Century,' and from there offers the most compelling take on the notion of parallel universes this side of 'Fringe'), and it's rarely a problem that 'Uncle Boonmee's' plot is so impregnable because its musings and impressions are so clear and deeply felt. Joe is a master in part because of how effectively he can attune the willing viewer to his wavelength, and by the time the film ends even the simple act of a monk discarding his robes in order to take a shower will resound with meaning - in its own quiet way the moment hits with an inspirational verve not unlike that of 'Mr. Holland's Opus.'
Joe is not a filmmaker for everyone, and those to whom this all sounds horribly unappealing should probably hold off for the Netflix debut. Joe's gentle, lingering, and often static compositions have never been more beautiful and the imagination he displays here gleefully suggests that this singular art-film hero has a gift for genre iconography equal to that of Guillermo del Toro (or at least Larry Fessenden), but don't be fooled into thinking that Joe has succumbed to it. Instead, 'Uncle Boonmee' plays like an apotheosis of his previous work - individual sequences could connect even with children, but as a whole this is the film he's been teaching his acolytes how to read for years. And while it may not hit with the full immediacy of Joe's last two features, 'Uncle Boonmee' is a film to buy (on Blu-ray, I'd hope) and savor for years to come - it won't transform you, but it will transform with you.