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Movie Review

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

'Uncle' embraces this life — and the others

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 6, 2011

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Doesn’t “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’’ sound like a Shirley MacLaine children’s book? Yet, it’s hard to envision her bestowing the indelible sights of erotic fish, plaintive monkey-men, and spangling planetarium grottos that populate this movie. Those appear to be the sole province of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the soul-faring animist from Thailand whose movies — including “Blissfully Yours’’ (2002), “Tropical Malady’’ (2004), and “Syndromes and a Century’’ (2006) — continue to find new ways to question the unanswerable. The new movie is a kind of pastoral fable. A middle-age woman (Jenjira Pongpas) travels into the jungle to visit her ailing brother, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), before he succumbs to a kidney illness. Somewhere else, this would provoke an emotive tragedy. Here’s it’s an occasion for contemplative rapture.

Boonmee will simply cease to inhabit his current body while imbuing a new vessel with life. Or so one suspects. Not far into the film, Boonmee, his sister, his wife, and his nurse receive a large visitor with inky fur and two eyes that glow like lasers prepared to shoot rays. It’s Boonmee’s son, Boonsong, who’s come in from the wild to join them at the table after many years missing. He’s now an ape and melancholic ghost. In the first of several instances of the movie’s way with comic understatement, all Boonsong’s aunt wants to know is why he’s grown his hair so long. It was beyond his control. As a whole, the movie generously, gloriously concurs: It’s all beyond our control.

The movie tasks us with determining who is living their first life and who’s living — I don’t know — their sixth. But in a single conversation, Apichatpong delivers his premise, and as a testament to its cogency, what would pass for longueurs in another director’s movie become commands for rumination here. Stretches of time in which the characters and the camera stare into the swaying sylvan canopies mean we must, too, and, I at least, experienced a saddening, humbling heaviness. Will I return as a tree, a beetle, or the majestic water buffalo that appears in the dusky opening shot then trots off? These stretches of quiet gazing might actually just be boring in the way that some meditation is just sitting in a room with your legs folded, noticing that nothing’s happening — within you or around you. But one person’s dead spot is another’s glimpse at eternal life. When one character mentions that heaven is overrated, it comes at just the right moment to know precisely what he means. It’s here on Earth. It could be, anyway.

Apichatpong might believe in spiritual transmigration, but the movie doesn’t promise eternal joy. A smile is hard to come by here, even when it involves sensational, fantastical oral sex. The director still appears to be a man of vinyl. Most of his films reach a halfway point at which you’re required to turn the record over. Side one of “Syndromes and a Century,’’ for instance, was reincarnated as side two. Here side one might be called “Outdoors,’’ side two “Indoors,’’ in which nature’s lush limitlessness eventually gives way to a cold, decidedly limited existence. In the last scene before it’s time to flip the record, Boonmee and the gang make a vaguely scary trek into a cave.

Interiority in the final scenes becomes merely about physical space. The ache to see one more plant, monkey-man, or gnat goes unsoothed. Which is not to say it’s more inertia (although things are remarkably still) but, rather, the opposite: As instinctive and imaginative as Apichatpong always is roaming around the Thai jungles, he can better fill a room with such foreboding that it threatens to implode. The sight here of three people sitting on a bed watching the news feels like a passive, poetic form of death.

“Uncle Boonmee,’’ which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, fails to tingle the spine quite the way “Syndromes and a Century’’ did a few years back. That was a magnum opus that managed to bundle the history of modern science-fiction and the state of industrial Thailand with an astonishing spiritual ribbon. It was the soul’s dismay with the landscape’s decay. Still, the heavy heart of the new film is palpably so. Boonmee suspects his illness is karmic. In his soldier days, he killed some communists, he says — and a lot of bugs.

Who can say whether he’s right? Skepticism is fair. But to believe in the enduring power of movies is to believe in some kind of reincarnation. What else are Boonsong and the other monkey-ghosts but a race of Chewbaccas and “2001: A Space Odyssey’’ cavemen? As Apichatpong erases, once again, the barriers between the celestial and terrestrial, he also does away with the cordons between film genres — this is sci-firomancefamilyreligiousthrillercomedyporn. No video service has a section for that. The only suitable shelf is the one in your soul.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES

Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar and Jenjira Pongpas

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 114 minutes

In Thai, with English subtitles

Unrated (some haunting images of monkey-men and one erotic scene between a woman and a creature of the sea)

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