Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives mostly takes place at dusk, that vague hour when things can still be seen, but not clearly. It’s fitting for a Thai film that’s puzzling on its own terms and, at times, incomprehensible for the Western viewer.
The title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying of kidney complications at his country home, which lies at the edge of the jungle. We’re told that the spirits of the forest can sense his sickness and are being drawn out into the human world. Among those we meet are his late wife, whose slow apparition at the dinner table makes haunting a romantic gesture, and his long-lost son, who returns as an ape-like creature with violently red eyes.
None of these occurrences are frightening, or even alarming. As a consideration of mortality, Uncle Boonmee is gentle, lush and even comforting (never mind that the characters’ belief in reincarnation means that Uncle Boonmee may be headed for the life of a bug). Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a languid style that beautifully matches the story’s setting. The movie isn’t paced as a conventional narrative; its story imperceptibly droops, like a heavy frond.
Weerasethakul is also more than willing to court confusion. A vignette between a disfigured princess and an amorous, talking catfish takes a more than alarming turn, while the final 15 minutes are spent dithering about with three peripheral characters. I’ll confess to not having the cultural education to declare whether these bewildering elements have significance or are simply examples of art-film obtuseness. Given the magic the movie otherwise weaves, I’ll forgive Weerasethakul if it happens to be the latter.