Sometimes, when travelling, I've visited cultures that were so different to anything I've experienced before, that I've felt an uneasy dislocation from myself. It's almost like I've just woken up and don't know who I am, and the business of being alive is strange and absurd. Usually this feeling wears off after a couple of days in a new place, but I remember feeling it when I got lost in Bangkok, and I had it again watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This is far from being a criticism of the movie; I think, although it's discomforting, this feeling of alienation serves to pull me out of the rut we all fall into of being absorbed in the day to day stuff we do, and makes me really THINK about my life and who I am.
This film set in Northern Thailand, is about a man, Uncle Boonmee, who goes back to his farm to die. It starts with a long, brooding sequence at dusk, when an ox (or maybe it's a buffalo, I'm not well up on different types of bovines) becomes restless and escapes into the jungle, where it is watched, but by exactly what the viewer doesn't know, at this point it's just a pair of glowing red eyes in the nightscape. Later, this scene, along with others, makes more sense, it seems to be an image from a former incarnation of Boonmee, although the film never explains this, just interposes these images in between the scenes depicting the central character with the people in his life, going about the ordinary stuff of everyday. By not following a more traditional narrative arc, but at the same time having a slow and gentle pace, the film seems to make the out of the ordinary events seem unthreatening, and I felt less concerned about trying to make sense of them
By day, Boonmee potters around his farm. His sister-in-law has come to visit him, and he shows her his bee hives, and introduces her to the workers who tend his trees. But at night events take place which may seem strange to Western eyes, but probably because they are rooted in traditional Thai spiritual beliefs, after their initial surprise, they seem to be easily accepted by the film's characters. On the first night, sitting at the table with two of his relatives, they are suddenly visited by the ghost of Boonmee's late wife, Huay, who has been drawn to visit him because she is aware of his sickness. Then a simian figure, with glowing red eyes is also drawn to their table. This turns out to be Boonmee's son, who disappeared many years ago, and became one of the monkey ghosts who dwell in the jungle. This strange group sit around the table, eating leftovers and looking at photos of family events the visiting spirits missed out on. I loved the silences, and the acceptance of events. If such creatures appeared at my table, I'd bombard them with questions about what had happened to them, but Boonmee and his guests relate to each other just as they did when they were all alive, and human.
The film follows Boonmee's last days and nights. Near death, he seems to be in a place, both spiritual and geographical, where the metaphysical becomes everyday. It reminded me of those times, after the loss of someone close, when everything seems charged with meaning and significance, and I've felt more aware than ever of life outside myself. The farm is on the edge of a jungle, which seems a mysterious, magical place, with resonances for me of the way William Blake, and much medieval literature, depicts forests, as places where one can, and will, meet creatures of dreams and imagination. My favourite scene is where Boonmee and his two living relatives go out into the night, and stumble through the forest to a womblike cave. But suddenly, the roof of the cave is lit by dots of phosporescence, or maybe even glow worms, and it looks just like a star lit sky.
I don't know if I liked the film or not, I can only say the time passed without me being aware of it, and the world seemed different when I left the cinema. Looking down at Brixton market from the heights of the train platform, even that familiar scene seemed magical and special. Maybe that's how the world really is all the time, when we care to take notice.