If you were joined at the table by a ghost and a grotesque half-man-half-ape, you'd shriek in horror, wouldn't you? That's not what happens in the moving, enigmatic film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. At first people are surprised when supernatural beings show up for dinner, but then it's beaming smiles all around.
Uncle Boonmee, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, is a challenging film. It is a series of long scenes, some of which don't seem directly connected to the others. The film mainly concerns Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a Thai farmer with a disorder that requires his kidney to be regularly drained of fluid. He is joined on the farm by his workers and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas).
The death he feels coming on seems to be related to strange occurrences, including the arrival of those weird dinner guests. One is his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and the other is his son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong). As we learn, Boonsong mated with a monkey ghost and moved up north, and now looks to be a monkey ghost himself. Later, Boonmee and others find their way to a cave, where he describes a vision of a city whose authorities "can make anyone disappear."
Other scenes are mysterious and jarring. A water buffalo moves through a dark, dark landscape. In a series of still photographs, soldiers pose with a monkey ghost. Most dramatically, in a sequence I won't soon forget, a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) has intimate relations with a catfish.
In production notes, writer and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul says that an earlier version of the script was more specific about what's a past life of Uncle Boonmee and what's not. In the absence of details like that, viewers are left to sort out for themselves what the film is saying. In that regard, Uncle Boonmee reminds me of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a similarly perplexing film whose mystery is its beauty. Sure, you can read Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 novel and have the plot explained to you. Or you can stop worrying and contemplate the mystery, which thankfully persists even if you've read the book.
Weerasethakul gives us lots of loose ends to try to tie together, and he invokes grand themes. The catfish sequence has the searing potency of mythology. The talk of past lives and karma gives the film a religious urgency. Glimpses of soldiers and dialogue about killing communists remind us of politics and war.
I'm not prepared to say what it all means. I can say that I'm heartened when Boonmee smiles as he sits with his dead wife at the dinner table. I miss my loved ones who have died, and after the surprise wore off, I think I would smile to see them.