Synopsis: Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has come to the end of his life and will be dead soon of a kidney ailment. His former sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), comes from the city to visit him on his farm, bringing her relative, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), to cook for them. The ghost of Uncle Boonmee’s long-dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) materializes to see him through his last days, and their lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), reappears at a family dinner, although it is not clear whether he has died or not; suffice to say he is now a sasquatch.
The spirit: Huay appears, transparent, in the chair next to Tong at dinner. He is taken aback and stands up quickly. Boonmee and Jen are surprised at first and then as Huay solidifies they begin catching up on the 19 years since her death. Then Boonsong comes up the stairs and sits down. He says he became whatever it is that he is because he was following the creatures that look like he does now and took one for a wife. Huay stays with the group until Boonmee dies a few days later; we see her helping with his dialysis and hugging him, although who knows whether any of this is to be taken literally. Lots of dead wives visit their dying husbands, but they don’t all help them with their catheters. Or appear to everyone in the room.
Importance: This film got the Palme d’Or at Cannes, so many people think it is worth watching and discussing. Although the award doesn’t guarantee the value of a film, and this is a polarizing film, I think the film is worth some contemplation. I’m not sure it’s meant to be analyzed as completely as some have done, because that might remove some of the emotional impact, but I’ll admit I had to read some opinions on the film during my watch. It was so slow and so challenging that it took me an afternoon of stopping, reading, coming back, stopping, and thinking, until I finally finished it.
Here is what I understand on the surface. People of all cultures see their dead relatives while they are themselves dying. It is almost universally a comfort. To me, it seems Huay appears to ease Boonmee’s death although when he asks her if that is why she is there she doesn’t answer. Perhaps she doesn’t know.
I would not have known that the scenes not involving Boonmee and his family were past life memories were it not stated in the title. We travel to these other realities without explanation. For example, the princess who gives everything she has to the talking fish may have been Boonmee in another life, or she may have been his mother when he was born in the cave (maybe) as a fish. I don’t know. I do know that she was supposed to be ugly and offered all her possessions as well as her body to the catfish for physical beauty (which we never know if she received). I believe she may have owed a karmic debt for this shallow outlook just as Boonmee felt he owed one for killing men in war. I don’t know if being a soldier or being pained by one’s unattractiveness necessarily costs a bad death later, or even if the film agrees. I do know life is hard for a woman who isn’t pretty, and I understand it can be hard to be a man and not be brave.
Also, I noticed when the film began that I thought Boonmee must be poor because of the way he lived without luxuries in the country, but I came to see that he was rich, with his land and bees and migrant workers and quiet nights. Jen, who lived in the city in a tiny apartment under fluorescent lights, was the one who was poor. She has a funeral for Boonmee in a church with weird Christmas-type blinking string lights everywhere and drinks served in plastic cups with straws, then counts funeral gifts of cash all night in her room. Tong goes to a monastery, as I understand all Thai men do for a short period in their lives, but returns to Jen’s place to shower and watch TV. The modern world is not favored by the film. This is also illustrated by the zombie-like state Jen and Tong are in every time they watch TV, and by the confusing but powerful ending.
That doesn’t change the fact that I’m typing this on a computer in my air-conditioned house and that I watched two movies today and will probably watch two more, and I just ate some fast food. The film leaves one with a sense of hope that what we can see right now is not all that there is. I don’t know what to do with this feeling, but it’s not a bad feeling. I do know I’ve always thought death would feel like the last day of school with similar exhilaration and tension and I was glad to see the film echo that feeling. When Boonmee is preparing to die he says he feels like he did in school when he had to give a speech: excited and scared.
Reincarnation, out of body experiences, and karma are all things I do have an interest in but have trouble writing about. I wish I could say something intelligent about the movie, but you will just have to watch it yourself and see if you can make a valuable analysis. I mean that sincerely. If you are reading this, and you have seen or do see the film, please take the time to write to me.
Visuals: The film moves slowly. You might think you know what a slow film is but if you have seen this one you will know for sure. The camera is static a lot on carefully framed shots both in the city and in the country. If ever visuals should have spoken for themselves, this is the time. It’s only the fantastic elements, which are not high-tech, that confuse; however, they intrigue the viewer. I like the way in which we are taken from scene to scene but allowed to make connections for ourselves. I also loved the extremely understated acting. The night shots, of which there are many, are especially beautiful. I now want a farm with trees and bees and a pavilion and ghosts and a house on stilts.
See also: Your dreams at night, if you are lucky, and maybe some stream-of-consciousness surrealist film like The Phantom of Liberty. It also reminded me of 8 1/2 and Pierrot Le Fou.