The son of two medical doctors at a rural clinic (see his Syndromes and a Century, 2006), young Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul grew up feeling greater comfort than most children among the sick and the dying, and with a greater appreciation for the close connection between life and death. Apichatpong prefaces the hauntingly quiet, gentle Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, for which he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, with script: “Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, [I find that] my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.” Watching this extraordinary adventure, perhaps cinema’s most entrancing ghost story since Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari (1953), one isn’t sure whether Weerasethakul is speaking for himself or his protagonist, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, wonderful), who with his unimaginative sister-in-law, Jen, and her son, Tong, retreats to the tamarind farm he owns to die peacefully of kidney failure. The atmosphere, lush yet delicate, proves receptive to ghosts which, lonely and longing for love, reattach themselves to the living: Huay, Jen’s sister and Boonmee’s wife; Boonsong, Huay and Boonmee’s son, which appears as a forlorn “monkey ghost” that will strike Western eyes as a facsimile of a werewolf.
Apichatpong finds his own world dissolving, disintegrating, and haunted by ancient images and echoes, like the primitive paintings on the wall of the womb-like cave into which Boonmee and his entourage venture. The film’s primordial forest corresponds to the thicket of uncertainty that awaits Apichatpong regarding Thailand and the rest of the endangered world. Boonmee worries about his fate because of the communists he killed at the behest of his nation and the insects he killed on the farm.
Generously, Weerasethakul expresses his sense of the equality of beasts and humans, men and women, young and old, whether they are reincarnated forms or Boonmee’s Buddhist-infused imaginings. The water buffalo at the beginning, which undoes its tether and seems to weigh the pointlessness of its “freedom,” is a sensible character; its blacked-out form treads the border between this world and some other. The glowing red eyes of the monkey ghosts suggest the fire from which re-creation, however great their loss, is yet achievable.
The cunnilingus that the giant catfish performs on the despairing princess in the river by the twin waterfalls? The most fabulous (and stimulating) digression in fabulous and fantastical cinema.
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