Whether its surprise Palme d'Or win at this year's Cannes Film Festival will help the theatrical prospects of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's dreamlike dance around death remains to be seen. A whimsical essay about the final days of a villager suffering from kidney failure it is undoubtedly one of the filmmaker's most accessible works.
In the last decade, Thai filmmaker and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully goes by "Joe") has enjoyed a significant ascendancy to international recognition-and rightfully so. Previous works such as Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century have met with unequivocal praise from critics. The way he focuses on the palette of human emotions marks him as a true original.
In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives he deals with a man dying from kidney failure. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) and a couple of his relatives are visited in rural northeastern Thailand by the ghosts of humans and animals, among them Boonmee's dead wife and his long-lost son in the form of an ape. Woven through, of course, is the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.
Inspired by a book written by a Buddhist monk, it all looks lyrically beautiful although the narrative's uncertain shifts and rhythms may perplex some viewers.
When Uncle Boonmee is not receiving medical attention, he tends to his bees and gazes out at the lush nature that almost envelopes him.
During dinner one evening his wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who passed away 14 years before, appears at the table. A strange-looking simian whose eyes resemble red lasers accompanies her. The Monkey Ghost turns out to be Boonmee's long-lost son. They all converse into the night, running the gamut of emotions from great joy to sadness.
Part of Weerasethakul's appeal is that he keeps many aspects of his narrative clouded in mystery and secrecy. Again some viewers may not appreciate such elusiveness.
At its heart, though, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives shows great compassion for its subject, and what it means to offer care and support to others in times of need. As a universal message for our global village, what could be more appropriate?
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Sakda Kaewbuadee and Jenjira Pongpas
Director/Screenwriter: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Producers: Simon Field, Keith Griffiths and Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Genre: Drama; Thai-language, subtitled
Running time: 113 min.
Release date: March 2 NY, March 4 LA