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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In a form that revolves around seeing, Apichatpong Weerasethakul seeks to meditate on the things we usually can’t. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, boundaries are often brought to question. As Boonmee sits at the dinner table with his sister-in-law Jen and nephew Tong, they’re greeted by Boonmee’s late wife, Huay—who appears as a translucent ghost. Then, Boonmee’s long lost son, Boonsong, appears—in the form of a non-human Monkey Ghost. Drawn to Boonmee’s own failing health, the line between life and death begin to blur, and so too the one’s between human and non-human. And while Huay does not exist in the realm of the living, and Boonsong does not appear as he did in the past, they all carry on a conversation—as if a soul, or a consciousness of sorts, or something, transcends these barriers that we usually use to distinguish such things. 

We see some of the other lives that Boonmee once lived, or will go on to lead, as well. They jump between genres, a scene is shot documentary-style, another is reminiscent of classic stage acting—even the form itself is being questioned. The cuts between the different times, and a late-act duplication of characters, continue to blend and disorient our perception of boundaries and borders. How many of us exist? How many of us exist right now? In what form? Are these even the right questions?

When Huay appears, back from the dead, and Boonsong appears, in a form of a monkey, it’s hard to process, and it’s hard to not immediately gravitate towards shock and fear, as Tong does at first. Some shock can be attributed to the unknown, the incomprehensible, but there’s a fear of something deeper, the feeling and burden of being haunted. Boonmee may be haunted by unresolved family tensions between him and Huay and Boonsong, and vise versa, but he’s also haunted by his past deeds in the military. A collective haunting is occurring. The place that Boonmee is standing on, in Nabua, is the site of violence enacted by the Thai army on communists and communist sympathizers. The way that a group of Monkey Ghosts stare at the humans, the violence that gets enacted when humans abstract themselves away from the nature they are damaging. The haunting might be a byproduct of these transformations and changes, or they might be the connective tissue itself. The film form is haunting the digital form, the myths haunt scientific knowledge. 

As Weerasethakul runs through these cycles and sequences, it becomes less an exercise on understanding the specific distinctions, and more about letting go of the concept of the line itself. Instead of holding onto specific, static ideas of what something appears as, or what something represents, or how each element connects, to approach it with a level of fluidity. Accept it as it is and as it comes, something akin to the Buddhist approach towards impermanence, and some peace can be found—not only to settle the myriad of existential questions that arise, but to process the pain and suffering that exists in the immediate. 

There is a lot of death and decay to sit with, and there are many cycles, and so there are many hauntings. There is also a lot of birth and rebirth and transformation. Only through seeing more of the process, can we begin the journey towards learning how to not trust your eyes in every case and to see beyond.