It is not much of a stretch to call Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) companion pieces. But the same could be said for Syndromes and Tropical Malady (2004), Malady and Blissfully Yours (2002), or Yours and Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)—each one a stair step to unchallenged mythical eminence of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre; each one achieving new heights; each one challenging my own blissful hyperbolic state. (The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), which Weerasethakul’s co-directed, is also somewhere in the mix, but entertainingly less grounded to his other work.)
The Walker Art Center hosts the Twin Cities' premiere screenings of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives this weekend and Syndromes and a Century next Thursday (which shamefully never got a theatrical screening here.) The Walker, way ahead of the curve on Weerasethakul’s work, screened his Mysterious Object at Noon in 2001 as a part of its Asian Currents program and later brought Weerasethakul to the Twin Cities for a Regis Dialog and retrospective in 2004. It is in keeping that the Walker would score an advanced screening of Weerasethakul’s Palme D’Or winner before it lands in New York City on March 2.
Uncle Boonmee earned top prize at Cannes less that a year ago and it wasn’t too long after that Stand picked up the U.S. rights to the film. Fans have certainly been waiting with baited breath, but even those unfamiliar with Weerasethakul's films would be hard pressed not to have noticed the rumblings of Uncle Boonmee’s mysterious ghosts. As one might guess by the title alone, Uncle Boonmee is not your average film—in the best possible way. Boonmee and his past lives are very much the subject of the film, but so are the grand enigmas of life, death and spirituality. With themes this big you might expect a certain amount of grandiose staging, but this is where Uncle Boonmee surpasses average and anything that you might expect.
Weerasethakul approaches the fate of Boonmee with gentle curiosity. Inspired by a book by the same name that Weerasethakul picked up from a monk, Uncle Boonmee is a relatively straightforward account of a man who is nearing death. It takes place, however, in a setting that evokes the supernatural. That setting not only incorporates the landscape and jungles of the Khon Kaen region of northern Thailand, but also Weerasethakul’s cinematic landscape where there is something very plainspoken about abstractions. Jen has traveled to the country to visit her brother-in-law, Boonmee, where he lives and tends to his tamarind grove and bee houses. She is accompanied by Tong, played by Weerasethakul favorite Sakda Kaewbuadee. Although Boonmee seems to be in good health, we learn of his kidney disease through an early scene depicting his dialysis.
Much of what happens in Uncle Boonmee is meant to float between the known and the unknown in the same way it floats between the past and the present, and a direct narrative and illusive diversions. There is an undeniable physicality to Boonmee’s peritoneal dialysis but it is gently rolled out right alongside mystical apparitions of reincarnation. Uncle Boonmee is a rare comment on death and spirituality that is completely original in film. With an ending that is best discovered, Uncle Boonmee lays a visual and symbolic path to the end—one of the most striking is the morning sun pouring into a cave revealing only part of Jen and Boonmee. Weersethakul’s poetic license is like an open door to interpretation that I have no intention on shutting. Peppered with magic and marvel, Uncle Boonmee goes out like a showboat ready to be painted with personal or political effects.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives plays twice: Friday at 7:30pm and Saturday again at 7:30pm. Although I have seen the film twice now (at the Vancouver International Film Festival) I wouldn't miss a chance to see it again on the big screen. At this time, it is unclear whether or not Uncle Boonmee will make another appearance in the Twin Cities. Despite the overwhelming critical praise it has received over the past ten months, it is far from a ‘marketable’ film that theaters are likely to jump on. I’m hoping to be proven wrong, but Weerasethakul’s previous film, Syndrome and a Century, is a case in point. Well received at festivals around the globe, Syndromes never received a theatrical screening in Minneapolis. Syndromes and a Century came out on DVD in the US a few years ago, but I have been living with the hope that someday it would get a belated theatrical screening. As soon as you see the beautiful digression that the film takes into a lush green field for the credits, you will see what I mean.
Humor, heart and beauty are at the center of every one of Weerasethakul’s films, but it reaches a swoony tipping point with Syndromes. The elliptical story revolves around two young doctors who exist in two realms of what seems to be a time-space continuum. The first half is set in a rural hospital where Dr. Toey is interviewing a new collegue, Dr. Nohng. The film breaks off to follow Dr. Toey as she visits patients, deals with a lovesick friend, and tells a story shown in flashback of her first love. The second half opens with the same interview between Dr. Toey and Dr. Nohng but it is set in the austere modern environs of a Bangkok hospital. After the interview the camera follows Dr. Nohng as he makes his rounds, visits with his girlfriend and shares some time with his co-workers taking nips out of a bottle of alcohol stashed in a prosthetic leg. Both stories are a sweet and unaffected exploration of the pains and journeys of love and companionship, both personal and professional.
Weerasethakul, the son of two doctors, has mentioned that the film was inspired by his own experiences, and is largely based on his parents’ lives before they married. Syndromes and a Century is a layered love story—perhaps with the true romance falling just slightly outside of the frame—but it effortlessly straddles motifs of ethics, science, Buddhism and compassion with an open heart and an open mind. In both Uncle Boonmee and Syndromes, Weerasethakul takes simple situations and cloaks them in a shroud of mystery. Is there something in the air? Maybe. At least that is the allusion that Syndromes makes near the end of the film as vapors are pulled into a ventilation system. Needless to say, we get pulled in with it.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Friday, February 18, 7:30
Saturday, February 19, 7:30
Syndromes and a Century
Thursday, February 24, 7:30 Free!