Uncle Boonmee and the Cycle of Samsara

On Tuesday night LACMA will screen Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s critically acclaimed film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The film traces the last days of Uncle Boonmee, who, suffering from acute kidney failure, has returned to his home in the countryside of northeast Thailand to spend his final days with his loved ones. As his health deteriorates, Uncle Boonmee wavers between his present and past lives—both human and animal—while visited by his deceased wife, who comes to care for him, and his long lost son, who has returned in the form of a monkey ghost.

The film’s main character is based on a real-life person, known simply as Uncle Boonmee, whom Weerasethakul encountered while living in northeast Thailand. The real Boonmee had come to study meditation with the abbot of a nearby Buddhist monastery.  Upon closing his eyes for his daily practice, he experienced visions of his past lives as though he were watching a movie based on his memories. He related his stories to the abbot who later recorded them in the book, A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Weerasethakul created his fictional narrative drawing on both the real Boonmee’s experience and Weerasethakul’s own memories, such as the passing of his father, who died from kidney failure. The result is a series of dreamlike vignettes that come together in a stream of consciousness.

Weerasethakul’s first draft for the feature film came in a 2009 short entitled A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, perhaps a perfect distillation of the filmmaker’s ruminative, tropical materialism. Weerasethakul’s works are largely jungle-bound, or at least jungle-adjacent, crackling with rustling leaves and the snap of bug zappers. They inhabit realms both natural and man-made, often visited upon by fabled creatures depicted in no-nonsense costumes. The past always seeps into the present like sunlight leaking through a shuttered window—real time slipping off its sprockets. Perhaps Weerasethakul’s most labyrinthine narrative since his Lewis Carroll–like debut Mysterious Objects at Noon, Uncle Boonmee drifts through alternate realities and nested flashbacks, opening up the story’s temporal space just as Weerasethakul’s framing implies the seeming endlessness of the vast forests that he films. His performers, languid and unfazed, don’t drive the story with their actions but rather explore its blind spots and ellipses through their conversations, offering tangents and remembrances, legends and non-sequiturs. The forward thrust of life is offset by the pull of memories.

The story of Uncle Boonmee resonates with the Buddhist belief in the endless cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara. In Weerasethakul’s own words, Uncle Boonmee “reinforces a special association between cinema and reincarnation. Cinema is man’s way to create alternate universes, other lives.”

The cycle of samsara can only be stopped by attaining enlightenment, or nirvana. According to Buddhist literature, the Buddha himself lived through several past lives before he reached enlightenment as Shakyamuni, the Buddha of our time (born around the fifth century BCE). The Buddha’s past lives are recorded in the jataka tales, or birth stories, of which there are over five hundred. Some scholars believe the jatakas were adapted from popular morality tales created by early Buddhist practitioners to explain the ethical teachings of the Buddha to his followers. The jatakas have been known throughout the Buddhist world for over two millennia. Transmitted from one generation to the next by way of oral tradition and sacred manuscripts, jatakas are also frequently depicted in visual art. Examples of illustrated jatakas from Thailand are currently on view in the Ahmanson Building in the installation, The Way of the Elders: The Buddha in Modern Theravada Traditions. Perhaps Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Lives reframes this tradition of visualizing the Buddha’s past lives for the mundane world, charting an ordinary man’s journey through various realms of existence.

In some ways, it’s not much of a surprise that it was a jury headed up by Tim Burton that awarded Uncle Boonmee the 2010 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Though Weerasethakul’s work operates on a far smaller scale than Burton’s dark-hued spectacles, both filmmakers share an interest in lonely souls who fall on the outskirts of the mainstream, be they a bush yeti or a pale man-child with hardware for hands. Burton said of the film: “I liked it because it is a movie that you normally don’t see—not Western—with fantasy elements done in a way I have never seen before. It is a beautiful strange dream. It has a quiet reflective nature, full of surprises.”

Bernardo Rondeau, Coordinator of Film Programs, and Julie Romain, Assistant Curator, Southeast Asian art

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