Clocking in at under 18 minutes, “A Letter to Uncle Boonmee” is nevertheless a major work by Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not merely a nifty preface to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, for which Apichatpong won the 2010 Palme d’Or at Cannes. Its brevity, moreover, helped impose a powerful rigor on the material.
Apichatpong’s “Letter,” either to a deceased relation or to a fictional character suggesting such a relative, signals a film about the making of this film and the subsequent film. Inside, throughout an abandoned house in Nabua, Thailand, from left to right a camera deliberately floats and observes, eyeing possessions, including old photographs, that identify the vacated family that once lived there. Passing by open doors and spaces, beyond which are open windows through which we glimpse the lush green of trees that waning daylight darkens into deep mystery, the illimitable past that the present enrobes in haunted light. Twice we listen to a disembodied recitation of the letter’s contents—Weerasethakul’s words, each time read aloud in the voice of a different stand-in. “Soldiers once occupied this village,” we are conclusively told. “They killed and tortured the villagers until everyone fled into the jungle.” Some 40 years ago, the inhabitants of the house were either killed or fled in fear for their lives. I feel that the roaming camera’s eye correlates to what of their spirits these people left behind while fleeing into their own homelessness.
At the end of the second recitation, the camera unexpectedly shifts direction, approaches a window and passes through it. For me, this is the filmlet’s most brilliant and piercing moment; it represents the delayed flight to freedom of the part of the farmers’ spirits that clung in memory to familiar surroundings, fracturing the souls of the escapees. Now the fragments are reunited—the outcome that Apichatpong sought and, by virtue of imagination (his own spirit), achieved.
The soldiers outside the house as well as inside exemplify memory’s capacity to blur the distinction between past and present. Of course, in the present they are actors playing soldiers, that is, on this occasion, one-shot “actors” recruited from locals. Of course of course, “soldiers” in fictional war movies are always actors playing soldiers. Weerasethakul’s playfully confusing us pulls us up short when we realize that the “amiable” soldiers here may represent torturers, rapists and killers. This is given a lovely, ironical mark of punctuation: a bit of food tossed to a hungry puppy below, from the porch, by one of the soldiers.
Observe the camera movements, as well as the mise-en-scène, that Weerasethakul has devised for outside the house, for these are key to understanding how he brings the sky and outer space into the blurred distinction between past and present, adding the future into the mix. This is an amazing film.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom contributes gorgeous color cinematography. One of its achievements is to match the depth of air that Henning Bendtsen conjured in black and white in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s radiant comedy (yes, comedy) Ordet (1954).
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