A lone water buffalo, in almost-silhouette, crosses the frame in murky late-afternoon darkness. I read that Uncle Boonmee actually comes as the culmination of a long-term series of Apichatpong-made artworks called Primitive. I briefly feared a Southland Tales-type situation where my ignorance of all the universe-establishing graphic novels, action figures, and webisodes that came before renders the film unwatchable, but then remembered I had nothing to worry about. Apichatpong builds his films viscerally, hence their strong performance among audiences in rural-by-rural-standards parts of Thailand who’ve never seen movies of any kind before. If he ever releases a picture that requires the viewer to know anything going in — anything at all — he will have done it wrong.
Eventually, a man in a loincloth turns up to wrangle the stray buffalo back to its herd. Watching this transpire, I thought, “Yes, primitive. Certainly.”
After a cut, the camera stares at a stock-still apelike creature, totally in silhouette except for its two red-L.E.D. eyes, which stare back. These creatures feature prominently in Uncle Boonmee’s promotional materials, especially in its North American poster, drawn by Chris Ware, which I can’t stop looking at. (The Cannes poster, which the video artist Blake Williams sent me rolled up in a mailing tube, also fills me with delight.) Apichatpong talks in interviews about the homage this character design pays to the beloved cheap Thai television shows and low-rent VHS movies of his childhood, which kept their monsters in the dark so you couldn’t see the shoddiness of the costumes but made their eyes glow so you could still tell where they were. Most of my favorite films strike just this balance: preposterous and funny, but somehow still of the highest seriousness.
A ghost very, very gradually fades into opacity at the dinner table. In the final days before the titular Uncle Boonmee, the film’s main character, succumbs to some sort of kidney disorder, his dead wife Huay briefly rejoins the living. During an early outdoor dinner scene — a sensory overload due to its cricket-rich sound design along — Huay appears in an empty spot at the table, but she does it so gradually that you don’t even notice until her materialization has just about finished.
I think Huay comes out of 20-odd years of death primarily to assist Boonmee in his own exit from life. (Eventually, she takes this matter directly into her ghost-hands by fatally unscrewing the plastic apparatus surgically attached to his insides.) Boonmee and his sister-in-law, Huay’s sister, show a little surprise at Huay’s having turned up, but quickly turn matter-of-fact: yes, a dead wife returning to help out around the house is definitely something that happens. Here we have another quality of Apichatpong’s films that keeps me coming back: even when he unleashes the weirdness, he faces it practically, head-on. “Heaven is overrated,” Huay reports. “There’s nothing there!”
A princess stares at her own reflection in the water, which at first looks classically “beautiful” but then fades back into her real face, which looks not exactly “ugly” but somehow somehow exists off of the known axes of beauty and ugliness. This comes right at the beginning of the scene from Uncle Boonmee everybody talks about, the one with cunnilingus administered by a magical catfish. In prelude to that, the magical catfish creates the idealized reflection for her. But I remember that less than I do the genuine reflection that returns to disappoint the princess, because it looks so different than this fairy-tale setup would have led me to expect. She doesn’t have a hook nose and warts of whatever; she doesn’t turn out to be ugly-ugly or even homely, exactly; she just looks — oddly leonine, I guess? Apichatpong shows the face so briefly that you can’t get much of a read on it, which had to have been the idea.
A monk stands up from a hotel bed to head out on the town, but immediately looks back and sees himself still sitting on the bed, watching television. I consider this Uncle Boonmee’s cinematic high point, the equivalent of the steam-pipe finale in its Apichat-predecessor, Syndromes and a Century. Unlike the steam pipe, the monk seeing himself still sitting on the bed from which he just rose isn’t the greatest moment of 21st-century cinema so far, but it doesn’t trail far behind. Talking to Charlie Rose in 1997, David Foster Wallace cited his artistic turning point in a moment from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet when, despite having been shot dead, the Yellow Man still stands upright. The monk starting to open the door and then looking back at himself may well turn out to be mine.
The monk and a middle-aged woman go out to a tacky, Christmas-light-strung, practically empty sort of restaurant and karaoke bar. They look at one another as a Thai pop song blasts, and then the movie ends. This just struck me as the perfect ending, somehow. All attempts to explain in words have proven futile; you’ll just have to watch to the movie. I’ve come to realize that untranslatability into language, which you might already have identified as Apichatpong’s strong suit, pulls me into a film more than perhaps any other quality. Even outside cinema, I find myself slightly weary of words and their limitations. Much more — alas, more words — on that later.