STOP10: Appreciating nonchalance in 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives'

Uncle Boonmee sits at his dining table with his sister-in-law when suddenly the ghost of his wife seeps into the scene, translucent and calm. Shortly after, his long-lost son appears as a monkey spirit. And so the story begins, with a man, a woman, a ghost, and a mysterious creature, eating dinner and conversing about life and death.

This scene instantly brought to mind a faraway recollection of my friend who described the Cambodian Buddhist festival Pchum Ben as “kind of like having a meal with your dead relatives”. It was the nonchalance of this description that stuck with me all those years ago, and a nonchalance I never really found again until I saw ghosts through director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lens.

In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), the titular character has a kidney infection and becomes alerted to the imminence of his death by visits from the spirits of his wife and son. This becomes a catalyst for Boonmee to go on a journey, visiting his own past lives to reconcile with his present, before this life too becomes a past. Even though I often found my mind wandering to other thoughts during those long contemplative shots of the forest, I was always gently nudged back to Uncle Boonmee’s story. I’d like to think this was Weerasethakul’s intended effect.

Nonchalance perhaps played the most important role. Often in films ruminating on the nature of existence, the filmmaker’s intent to ruminate is all too visible. People and places slip into convenient symbols or metaphors, and everyone leaves the cinema with more or less the same message. Here, it wasn’t just Uncle Boonmee who was nonchalant about suddenly having the ability to see above and beyond his own life, Weerasethakul himself seemed nonchalant in his direction. Not a moment was wasted in explaining why or how Boonmee has this ability, we are demanded to simply accept. And without us realising, this simple acceptance becomes a powerful trigger, forcing us to consider our own notions of life, death, reality. 

The idea of ghosts to me has always been closely tied to transience, in other words, the permanency of nothing being permanent. A ghost is a lingering presence of a life once lived, an experience once had. It’s therefore a conundrum; an existing trace of something or someone that no longer exists. This is perhaps why most ghost movies are scary. In fact, before I knew about independent filmmaking in the region, all I had heard about Thai cinema was that it was famous for making some of the scariest horror films ever. Watching Uncle Boonmee, I was thankful for the exposure to an alternative production of moving images, because I realised that Weerasethakul’s nonchalant depiction of ghosts can actually say so much about culture – both in terms of film, and in terms of practices and beliefs.

As a cinematic audience, we are kind of like ghosts. We watch from a distance, the world of the movie is not our world and our presence should remain unacknowledged to maintain the illusion. But the irony is in the very fact that by existing, a film inherently acknowledges an audience. In Uncle Boonmee, there are several instances where characters make deliberate eye contact and speak to the camera. Weerasethakul acknowledges our spectatorship in a slow and haunting way, binding us into this experience where borders between life and death, past and present, film and non-film, collapse.

Just as Boonmee is like a ghost watching over his own lives, we are like ghosts watching a whole phenomenon unfold. Film in this equation becomes a catalyst enabling a meditative understanding of transience, both for the characters and the audience. Uncle Boonmee in its casual disregard for narrative or stylistic convention becomes something else. It can’t simply be called ‘a film’, because it does so much more. It depicts a philosophy, a manner of understanding life and death, and in turn, cinema, with a nonchalant acceptance so unique to this cultural landscape. In making this film, Weerasethakul establishes why independent filmmaking is so incredibly crucial, regardless of time and place.

Check out which other films made our list of the 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Asian films.

Written by Tanvi Rajvanshi

Tanvi Rajvanshi considers film to be one of the few constants in her life. Her head is often up in the clouds, but curiously, cinema is what draws her back down to earthly realities.

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