REVIEW: Monkey Ghosts and Amorous Catfish Bring Grace, Beauty and Weirdness to Uncle Boonmee

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And really, the woman's presence is hardly weird at all compared with the next guest: A monkey spirit with glowing red eyes, who explains in vague, dreamy detail how he came to live inside his current furry form. All of this follows the movie's opening sequence, in which a cow stands listlessly among a stand of trees in a misty twilight. Egged on, perhaps, by the half-urgent, half-soothing chirping of crickets and cicadas, he eventually breaks his tether and runs off, with school's-out-forever abandon. His confused run at freedom is short-lived: He's reclaimed and becalmed by a man who seemingly emerges from nowhere, as a silent group of red-eyed monkey ghosts looks on.

That cow may be a previous incarnation of Uncle Boonmee, a half-glimpsed memory from a very different life. Or it could be just a cow, because in a Joe movie, being "just a cow" is certainly enough. Anyone who has seen any of Joe's previous pictures -- Tropical Malady, with its talking tiger spirit; Syndromes and a Century, a love story that takes place wholly before the lovers even get together -- probably knows that connecting the dots of Uncle Boonmee, in any strict way, is futile. But there is a story here, albeit one that takes shape from the mist the movie leaves in its wake. The experience of watching a Joe movie -- of bearing witness to the cool, frondy forests and light-streaked skies that recur in his movie's landscapes, of slipping into the way his characters live so intensely but un-self-consciously in the present -- accounts for only half the experience of actually seeing it. There is the Joe movie that you watch, and the one that follows you home afterward: One is a ghost of the other, but it's hard to tell which is which.

That's why I find Joe's movies to be magic: They're oblique and concrete at once, gorgeous to look at, and dappled with jokes that connect the real world with the dream one (like the way Jen asks the monkey ghost, with a faint air of motherly disapproval, "Why did you grow your hair so long?"). Uncle Boonmee was shot by two cinematographers, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Joe's regular collaborator) and Yukontorn Mingmongkon, who don't so much capture the stillness of the countryside as pick up on its every minute vibration. Their compositions are restrained but never static: During that dinner-table ghost visitation, a lantern glows nearby like a facsimile moon, a reminder, perhaps, not to take the natural world at face value.

I'm sure that someone with a better knowledge of Thai folklore could illuminate some of the deeper meanings of Uncle Boonmee. But as with any Joe movie, the key is to let yourself go with the meandering current of its narrative. In one of the movie's most beautiful sequences, a not-so-pretty princess looks at her reflection in a pond, her unhappiness clouding around her like an oppressive mantle. Suddenly, a catfish speaks up from over yonder, assuring her that her true beauty sets her leagues apart from other women. Grateful for the fish's kindness, she tosses her jewels into the water as an offering, and then, lying back on a pillow of gentle waves, she offers him yet more.

The sequence is so smoothly orchestrated that it hardly feels over the top. And yet Joe knows it's a little funny, too: You might find yourself giggling at it, and that's perfectly OK. The surest way to misunderstand any of Joe's movies, Uncle Boonmee included, is to take them too seriously, to approach them with too much film-studies-major rigidity. Joe's movies can certainly be baffling: I'm still trying to parse the possible meaning of the final section of Uncle Boonmee, in which Tong has become a monk -- perhaps the same monk we met in Syndromes and a Century, at another time, or in another lifetime? But the biggest, most joyful mystery of Joe's movies is the way, strange as they may be, they always feel so wholly at home in the world. One of the ghosts of Uncle Boonmee, upon hearing how the people she left behind had mourned her, reassures them: "I could feel your prayers." With a simple line, and a powdery, phosphorescent image, Joe builds a bridge between the dead, the living, and the always-shall-be. It's the music of being everywhere and nowhere at once.

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  • festie says:

    holy cow,no pun intended, are you a pretentious self important hack. is called a lack of ability to tell or write a linear story. there are many people in this world that are capable of that in this world. should they be making movies? hell no, those are the people you try to avoid at all costs when they TRY to tell a story. why? because the couldnt tell a story if their lives depened on it. you are part of the problem in hollywood, style over substance. for that matter your style sucks too.

  • T. says:

    You, dear sir, are so busy talking about "stories" that you forgot cinema is not structurally built to be an exclusively narrative medium. That's called a novel. Cinema is about moving images.
    It is also hilarious that you describe the good old people in Hollywood as being 'style over substance'. That is a spectacular misreading of reality (and by the way, style IS substance, but I'm sure you've heard this one before).

  • David Alford says:

    I'm with Stephanie! A wonderous, if mystical, celebration of an essentially Buddhist world view, anatta, 'no self,' which is another way of describing the unity of all being. There are essentially no boundaries in this film, not being living and dead, not between animals and humans, not between monks and 'civilians,' not between 'civilization' and nature, not between genders, ages, nationalities. Uncle Boonmee's regrets about his earlier killing spree is entirely consistent with the very broad-scale portrayal of 'cosmic consciousness,' say. Sure, Weerasethakul's films require patience and a willingness to be mesmerized far more than simply entertained. And, I must say, the second viewing is far more satisfying too. I found myself really looking, really perceiving, really being with the characters, the animals, the forest, waterfalls, and, finally, myself, appreciating myself for entering this 'other world.'