The narrative of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) follows the last days of its titular character in Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand, as he is visited by his sister-in-law and his nephew. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) can recall his past lives and, as the film continues, the ghost of Boonmee’s wife and the monkey ghost of his son appear and join a dinner conversation, a princess from an ancient mythical time has a sexual affair with a catfish, and photographs of civilians and soldiers in Isaan hanging out with monkey ghosts permeate the film. These layers of fantasy that slowly bubble to the surface can be understood as the director’s style of social surrealism, where, according to David Teh, “the unconscious that [Weerasethakul] taps – or taps him – is as much collective as it is individual.”1 For other critics, like Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Uncle Boonmee is understood as a daring formal experiment that is slow and dreamlike, expressing “a narrative of reincarnation” that “merges the original Buddhist idea of time and ghosts,” challenging the homogeneous way of understanding time as a linear and singular entity.2 Thought of together in these contexts, Uncle Boonmee becomes a very complex meditation of both cinematic memory and Thailand’s cultural memory.

Uncle Boonmee was shot on Super 16mm film and then transferred to 35mm for theatrical distribution and exhibition. It contains six different film styles that evoke various parts of Thailand’s audiovisual culture and history: when humans and ghosts sit and converse at the dinner table, the sequence is shot like a Thai television drama with a predominantly static camera; when the princess and the catfish have sex, the scene is shot as Weerasethakul’s version of the Thai costume drama; and the moments in the jungle are reminiscent of classic Thai horror films, wherein the creatures were regularly shot in the dark to hide the cheap costumes the actors were wearing. The transitions into these different moments are often bridged by the use of the same sound or music, and the audience is invited to consider these varied scenes (and styles) as prior incarnations of Boonmee or episodes in his previous lives. In turn, the film’s aesthetics become a formal manifestation of the themes of memory and reincarnation.

Here, the audience is encouraged to, like Boonmee, remember and recall the past lives of Thai cinema and television. As Weerasethakul suggests:

Film is a medium that portrays a rich visual world associated with its material qualities. Film also relates to how I deal with memory in my work. When you remember something, it’s always like it has this filmic quality. When you watch video you’re much more conscious of the fact that it’s a medium. At least I am. But with film, that doesn’t happen to me; it’s natural like seeing with naked eyes.3

Seen from this viewpoint, the medium and materiality of film become a way to bring the various shreds of the past into the present. More specifically, as Andrew Utterson notes, the 16mm photochemical film used in Uncle Boonmee indexes the 1960s and 1970s, when both Thai film and television were predominantly shot on 16mm film stock; as Utterson writes: “In this recollection of a prior era of moving images, the medium of production – 16mm film – is as important as the popular generic content.”4

In turn, the audiovisual culture and history that the film’s medium and materiality refer to become an interesting way to raise the issues of Isaan’s geopolitical past and present in Thailand. Bordering Laos and Cambodia, the region of Isaan has been described by Natalie Boehler as the site of national trauma.5 Amongst many things, Isaan in the 1960s and 1970s became a place that was perceived by the central Thai government to be a breeding ground for communism, resulting in a brutal crackdown on many of the people living there who were suspected of harbouring communist sympathies. This event is not the central point of focus in Uncle Boonmee, but it is briefly referenced, amidst other things, as Boonmee talks about his kidney disease as karmic payment for killing too many communists. This brief comment is not dwelt on – perhaps, in large part, due to Thailand’s very strict censorship laws (Weerasethakul’s 2006 film Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) was banned by the state). But, through a focus on the film’s form and materiality, the shreds of this past – and other pasts – are brought into the present tense.

The film is assuredly slow in its temporality, and the potential for boredom becomes an aesthetic strategy, often encouraging a meditative mode of spectatorship where the images affectively wash over the audience into their unconscious, and, vice versa, where their unconscious rises to connect with the film’s audiovisual images and the various versions of the past that Uncle Boonmee evokes. In this sense, this is a film that will stay with and haunt you for a while, as the ghosts and past lives of both the film and the audience are reincarnated and recalled, over and over again.

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Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010 Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands 114 mins)

Prod. Co: Kick the Machine, Illuminations Films Prod: Simon Field, Hans W. Geissendörfer, Keith Griffiths, Lluís Miñarro, Michael Weber, Apichatpong Weerasethakul Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Scr: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Phot: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom Ed: Lee Chatametikool Prod. Des: Akekarat Homlaor Mus: Chonlatat Chalodhorn, Tom Aj. Madson, Adisak Poung Ok

Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Wallapa Mongkolprasert, Kanokporn Tongaram, Samud Kugasang

Endnotes:

  1. David Teh, “Itinerant Cinema,” Third Text 25.5 (2011): p. 604.
  2. Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, “Showing the Unknowable: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in Cinematic Ghosts: Haunting and Spectrality from Silent Cinema to the Digital Era, Murray Leeder, ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 272.
  3. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, quoted in Ji-Hoon Kim, “Learning About Time: An Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” Film Quarterly 64.4 (2011): p. 49.
  4. Andrew Utterson, “Water Buffalo, Catfish and Monkey Ghosts: The Transmigratory Materialities of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 15.2 (2017): p. 240.
  5. Natalie Boehler, “Haunted Time, Still Photography and Cinema as Memory: The Dream Sequence in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese 12: 1 (2014): pp. 62–72.

About The Author

MaoHui Deng received his PhD from the University of Manchester. His research is interested in the ways in which films about dementia can help further and/or complicate our nderstanding of time in cinema, gerontology and the wider society.