To many people’s surprise, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest enchantment from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes And A Century), took the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where jury president Tim Burton likened it to “a beautiful strange dream.” Burton’s comparison is apt: The appeal—and, indeed, the meaning—of Weerasethakul’s films can be hard to explicate, given the obscurity of their cultural and spiritual references, and their many odd abstractions. But while Uncle Boonmee is yet another of the director’s beguiling (and occasionally baffling) experimental narratives, it’s also his most accessible work to date, a moving, gently reassuring tale that softens the boundaries between humanity and nature, life and the afterlife.
Based loosely on a book of stories by a Buddhist abbot, Uncle Boonmee follows the eponymous character (Thanapat Saisaymar), a man suffering from acute kidney failure who elects to spend his final days with family and friends in the countryside. Once he arrives, with his caretaker/sister-in-law close by his side (Jenjira Pongpas), the bridge into the afterlife gradually lowers and strange (though not unpleasant) things start happening. Gathered for dinner on the porch, Boonmee and his guests encounter the friendly ghost of his long-dead wife, and his long-lost son also appears in non-human, hirsute form. As the title suggests, the film then shifts into a full-on meditation on his past lives with many peculiar vignettes, including an instantly notorious one involving human-catfish relations.
As with most of Weerasethakul’s work, the significance of sequences like that one is better felt than understood—the last 15 minutes are particularly obscure—but keep an open mind, and the abstractions aren’t as intimidating as they sound. Uncle Boonmee obliterates the gulf separating the material world from the spiritual one, but it does so quietly and matter-of-factly, drawing on nature as a primary source of atmosphere. Weerasethakul is a master of sensual experience—real movie magic—and Uncle Boonmee rewards whatever faith and intuition viewers are willing to invest in it.