In the Palme d'Or-winning supernatural drama Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives , director Apichatpong Weerasethakul chronicles his titular character's final days in the Thai countryside, where he's reunited with his dead wife and lost son, who's undergone an otherwordly transformation.
As he slowly dies of kidney failure, Boonmee's mind turns to both the mundane (tending his farm) and the mystical (a past life, in which he may or may not have been a catfish who had a randy rendezvous with a human princess). The film flits between straightforward realism and non sequitury detours into fantasy. Uncle Boonmee is absolutely baffling at times, but its bucolic setting and propensity to mix the fantastic with the commonplace make it a memorable watch.
Uncle Boonmee isn't the easiest film to describe, but if I had to make a comparison to a more known quantity, it would be Hayao Miyazaki's classic 1988 kids' flick My Neighbor Totoro. Both films follow a somewhat similar trajectory — characters move to a country house, and the rural setting allows for the supernatural to blend casually with the realistic. But Totoro was about a pair of young sisters discovering the magics of the countryside — Boonmee is about an older man retiring to nature, where he can finally reunite with lost loved ones.
The film opens with Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) sojourning in northeast Thailand with their aides, Thong the monk (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and the Laotian immigrant Jai (Samud Kugasang).
Over dinner that evening, they're joined by two other guests — the ghost of Boonmee's dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), who has transformed into a crimson-eyed "monkey ghost" after mating with one of the spectral simians after attempting to photograph them in the wilderness. So yes, Bigfoot isn't a cryptid, he's a venereal disease.
Despite its supernatural trappings (Boonsong resembles a skunk ape, Huay is see-through), the dinner reunion is the film's emotional high point. Boonmee's family has traveled from beyond the physical realm to visit him again; it is a comfort not afforded by reality. The characters interact with a stilted formality at first (you wouldn't be immediately chummy if a ghostly relative dropped by for dinner), but it becomes weirdly touching when the family looks through a picture album together — Jen must lower the lights to accommodate Boonsong's nocturnal eyes.
The special effects in Uncle Boonmee are by no means the most highfalutin, but they're effective given the film's forested setting — someone running through the woods in a gorilla outfit with glowing red eyes would be disconcerting even if you knew it was just a costume.
For most of its 114 minutes, the film catalogs Boonmee's inevitable demise, the solace he takes in his tamarind farm, and his fear of dying throughout conversations with Huay and Jen. There are brief, inexplicable excursions into the past — Boonmee recalls a princess who had sex with a sentient catfish (Led Zeppelin-groupie style) and a flashback of the Thai military corraling up the monkey ghosts.
Ultimately, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a textbook case of "your mileage may vary." Some viewers will delight in its gorgeous rural backdrop, its heartrending portrayal of a reunited family, and its subtle tensions between myth and modernity. Others will be perplexed by its abrupt, phantasmagoric digressions, Weerasethakul's willingness to be cryptic, and its slow, slice-of-life plotting. Just know what you're getting into, and remember— no unprotected in-out, in-out with Bigfoot.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is playing in select US cities.