Thursday, February 3, 2011

Uncle Boonmee, Take Three: Frontier Film

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an incredible film. So much so that I'm planning on seeing it three times, in two different theaters, and bloggin' a new post for each viewing. Hopefully, this will help me get at the astonishing play of ideas at work in this movie; if not, at least it'll be an unusually-for-me organized attempt. Either way, really. Stay tuned!)

“The second bowl is always the best!” said Calvin, referring to his three-bowl tradition of sugary cereal. (I love quoting Calvin and Hobbes and then imagining the namesake philosophers saying those lines. Picture this guy exclaiming, “There’s treasure everywhere!” and then go forth and lead a better life.)

ANYway, my experience watching
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives three times over the course of its initial weeklong run here in London played out quite differently than Calvin’s daily binge. The first time (at the Prince Charles Cinema) was consolidation, all my built-up expectations and love of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s previous work flowing into the film, both enriching and clouding the experience. My second viewing (this time at the BFI) was the least of the three, as I began to appreciate and understand the film on its own terms, but also felt the pressure of doing so in face of such a complex work from such a prankster artist. It was the third time through, a couple of nights ago back at the Prince Charles, which ultimately proved the most rewarding. Everything that had stood out the first time was doubly familiar, and anything I’d forgotten had been re-emphasized; with all exposed, I wandered freely through the riffs and oddities, the sudden shifts and insidious drifts, the (seemingly) inexplicable and (eternally) ineffable. Thankfully, these elements lie at the core, not the periphery, of Apichatpong’s latest, simultaneously the most grounded and the most bone-deep schizoid film he’s made yet. The first time was watching; the second, thinking; the third, wandering.

So how can I properly finish (for now) talking about this incredible movie? By wandering back to the beginning, and thinking about the title.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s a mouthful, which a reviewer on a handout at the BFI screening noted, before then emphasizing the accessibility of every other feature of the film. Damn straight, but the sheer open-faced size of that title shouldn’t be dismissed as mere quirk. It draws attention to a specific time and event in Uncle Boonmee’s life, a deathbed gift born straight from the tangles of ancient myth and daily existence discussed in my last two posts: the ability to see his past lives.

Or is it? Certainly,
Uncle Boonmee is so overflowing with narrative divergences and absorbing subplots (any new character immediately becomes the most important figure on screen, before silently falling away again) that it becomes increasingly hard to discern a main trunk from which the branches sprout. Yet the opening one-off, Boonsong’s emergence, the fable of the catfish, even the stunning still-photo sequence at the ostensible climax—all feel of an emotional and visual piece with the quiet, funny family drama playing out underneath them. Herein lies the difference between “narrative” and “narration,” as Raymond Durgnat might term it. In narrative (plot) terms, these are indeed divergences, reflecting Apichatpong’s playful formalism, his inclusiveness, and his restless desire to compare, contrast, juxtapose, contextualize his scenarios, even as they remain firmly couched in elliptical myth-making. In narration (storytelling) terms, the “divergences” never feel as abrupt as the label might indicate. The loose, prowling camerawork, dreamy editing, and (above all) the suggestion of infinity in those northern Thai jungles unite all the threads as riffs on a single vision. It’s those moments of contact, white-hot as worlds rub up against each other, that shake the soul most, but are always graceful, like the end of a perfect chapter in a head-spinning book. The camera swirls endlessly underwater before releasing us, with a silent gasp, back to open air, where Auntie Jen swats absent-mindedly at mosquitoes; the sound of a jungle crying out (in despair? Ecstasy? Release?) bridges a lush valley and an urban funeral service.

These are instances, not of polemic head-hammering, but of forefronted tactility: I could almost feel the seamless soldering at work. Sensuality, for Apichatpong, is not a layer brushed over a film’s surface, but the medium’s raison d’être. By plugging us directly into the sensory grid, he lends subjective engagement to what, in other hands, could be a distantly amusing oddity of a film. For what I swear is the very last time, I reach for the Lynch comparison: if
Eraserhead (or Lost Highway, or Inland Empire) is so very incomprehensible, why do its fervent fans (yo) respond so strongly? Perhaps it’s because the uncanny is a connective, emotive force all on its own, if the filmmakers are willing to commit themselves to it.

Such entwined collisions seem to descend directly from the title: these trailing stories are the past lives of Uncle Boonmee, blurring into each other with increasing speed and confusion as he nears death. Yet, while that’s a satisfying
narrative construction, it isn’t borne out so neatly in narration. Certainly, there’s no explicit connection made between the dying man and the ox or the catfish, and yet the subplots are linked to the main plot: we shift from the ox to a Monkey Ghost (perhaps Boonsong, perhaps not) and the catfish tale is introduced via a series of gentle cuts, receding from a drowsing Tong into the wild jungle. Indeed, one could easily think of the opening sequence as Boonsong’s re-introduction to the human world (the film’s first collision of routine and myth) and the princess-catfish fable as Tong’s dream, an urban monk’s vision of this strange, fertile jungle. More importantly, the sense of transference, the mobility of souls, is not limited to the discrete branchings-off. One key scene finds Jen wandering away from a reclining Boonmee to pick some fruit. She feeds some to a friendly dog. The camera first holds Boonmee and Jen, then Jen, then Jen and the dog, then the dog. This flow of life is what animates Uncle Boonmee, beyond any one character.

As such, to reduce Uncle Boonmee’s straying strands to refractions of its titular character would be to miss the plurality of voices that make up Apichatpong’s film. Like Claire Denis (whose mortality tone poem
L’Intrus makes for an instructive reference point), Apichatpong never shies from the political implications at the fringes of his scenarios, but allows them to remain at the fringes, insidiously inextricable from daily life, and practically synonymous with national myth. In Uncle Boonmee, politics reflect and inform the colliding dualities of real/mythical and modern/ancient. The film’s first conversation between Boonmee and Jen, the old guard, focuses not on corporeality, but nationality: Boonmee’s assistant Jaai is Laotian, setting off a clearly lifelong prejudice of Jen’s. “Is he illegal?” she asks, a question sure to be familiar to any American audience. “I don’t know,” Boonmee answers, a note of reproach in his voice. That night, Jaai is the last guest at the ghostly family reunion. Staring at Boonsong and Huay, and at the nonplussed reactions of Boonmee and Jen, Jaai murmurs, “I feel like the strange one here.” Yet Boonmee, the rural farmer who laments that, unlike his workers, he never gets to leave the jungle, is still far more tolerant and worldly than his urban counterparts. He eagerly learns French from another Laotian worker (who came across the river “when Laos fell apart”) and drinks Chinese tea Jen finds intolerably bitter. That tea, according to Boonmee, bears its own mythical qualities, able to heal the paralyzed. Perhaps the film’s central scene finds Boonmee and Jen resting at a hut as Boonmee painstakingly drains his kidneys. He blames his karma for his failing state, lamenting that he “killed too many Communists” in the Thai crackdown on northern insurgents. Jen reassures him that he did so for the state, to which he groans, “what a pain in the ass!”

The national, historical, and mythical blur together, not in the city, but in the jungle, the heart of the old legends. Here, Apichatpong’s question becomes one of ownership, rather than binary morality. To whom do these stories belong? Boonsong’s beastly transformation riffs on not only Thai legends, but also distinctly Western images: the comparisons to Bigfoot were inevitable, and to Chewbacca even more so. Yet his Monkey Ghosts were “the ones we heard as kids,” distinctly personal myths. As far as I know, even the most crazily passionate cryptozoologists/Star Wars fanboys don’t actually want to
become Bigfoot or Chewie (I imagine Cap’n Solo is still more popular in that regard). Again, Apichatpong focuses attention on the contact point, this time between the individual and the endlessly re-inscribed myths. The Monkey Ghosts belonged to Boonsong, the curiously listening child. Now he belongs to them. This isn’t the (American) Borg, though—assimilation is a joyous (and sexy, evidently!) transcendence. And, of course, Boonsong steps beyond while snapping pictures, trying to understand “the art of photography.” It’s observation that collapses the modern individual and the ancient collective; ergo, postmodern cinema.

This may sound overly academic in the face of a film as warm and funny as Uncle Boonmee, but like his movies, Apichatpong’s artistic persona is increasingly defined by such dichotomies. On the one hand, he famously refuses the title of “director,” preferring “conceived by” to appear before his name in the credits. His response to Hollywood’s global domination isn’t a line in the sand, but (again, like Tolkien) a passionate retreat, placing modernity in a broad context but without the rigorous formalism or detached fatalism of the likes of Béla Tarr and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. On the other, Apichatpong is famously the only Thai filmmaker not to comply with the national censors, preferring to remove
Syndromes and a Century from his native theaters entirely. His multi-media Primitive Project, the launching pad for Uncle Boonmee, draws attention to those rural parts of Thailand left uncelebrated (or actively neglected) by the growing urban empire; yet the Project is financed in Munich, as the Thai government was unsurprisingly unwilling to get onboard. Couching historical slaughter in local myth, bringing his national struggles to bear on the international festival circuit, and still accepting the nickname “Joe” from western writers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul both invites and confounds traditional academic dissection. His career, more than any other, makes it clear that as the field of film studies increasingly wrestles with questions of changing international distribution, English-speaking cinephiles need to find different ways of writing about foreign films.

The last few posts have been my attempt at doing so, and here’s the closest I’ve come to a conclusion: what makes
Uncle Boonmee a strange, confounding film to these American eyes isn’t its fidelity to unabashedly local mythology, but rather its inclusiveness within that mythology. In surrendering the “director” tag, Apichatpong opens his work up to voices of all kinds, without ever flattening their distinctive histories. His films are overflowing, generous, promiscuous, ever aware of both the innate excitement and terrible power of the medium. All this is a far cry from the paring-down approaches of most of the “world cinema” beloved among western cinephiles, and this is why Apichatpong’s conceptions are so essential to the future of both film and film studies.

A final note on perhaps Uncle Boonmee’s subtlest voice: again, look at the title. Uncle Boonmee. Uncle. It’s no accident that the film gradually shifts greater and greater weight to Tong, seen as little but a helpful shadow until after Boonmee’s death. He wore a T-shirt in the jungle, but returns to his monk garb (and cell phone) when back in the city. He’s the one left to parse out the meaning of what he saw and felt in the jungle, the myths and monsters and army fatigues, while sitting in an empty karaoke bar, simultaneously watching his country explode on TV. Uncle Boonmee had past lives, but it’s Tong who has future ones, and with nothing but a few cuts and a cheesy pop song, Apichatpong ties them together and passes them on.

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