Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Dreams blur with real life in this sensual cinematic vision.

Rousseau at his most feverish might have conjured up the balmy tropical dreamscape of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. And Ovid would have recognised a kindred spirit in the film's Thai writer-director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who collapses the divisions between human and animal, body and spirit, past and future. "Heaven is overrated - there's nothing there," says one character. Neither accusation could be levelled at this Palme d'Or-winning phantasmagoria.

Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is dying of kidney failure, is having dinner one evening when the ghost of his late wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), materialises without fanfare in an empty seat. Her arrival is greeted with joy and bafflement; Boonmee, while pleased to see her, wonders if she has come to collect him. No sooner have they exchanged pleasantries than she is upstaged by another non-human gatecrasher, their son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), who pulls up a chair at the table.

Covered top to toe in hair, Boonsong is the spit of Jean Marais in Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, the model for any film-maker broaching the topic of transformation. It's as if Robin Williams came for dinner but forgot to wax first. "Why did you grow your hair so long?" asks Boonmee sweetly. Isn't that just the sort of question a doddery parent would come up with when he hasn't seen you since that fateful day many years earlier when you disappeared into the forest to have sex with a monkey ghost?

Boonsong has news for his father: "There are many beings outside right now. Spirits and hungry animals. They sense your sickness." It doesn't get much more sinister than a red-eyed Sasquatch pitching up to tell you that the vultures are circling, but it's a measure of the film's becalming mood that these tidings are folded easily into the mix. Ghosts, shape-shifters, inter-species congress and imminent death are greeted with the same relaxed curiosity. Reincarnation, a subject uppermost in Boonmee's mind, is shown to be as casual as changing clothes; it's by this process that an otherwise humdrum scene, of a monk shrugging off his orange robes, taking a shower, then throwing on jeans and a T-shirt, can acquire a spiritual ­dimension. (Not that this is a banal vision: Boonmee believes his illness is karma for having killed so many communists while serving in the Thai army.)

Uncle Boonmee is demonstrably more linear than Weerasethakul's previous two features, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, which dared the viewer to construe a link between apparently disparate sections. The new picture operates instead by suggestion, so that we begin to take for granted ­Boonmee's presence in each of the mysterious vignettes. He must be the tethered water buffalo that is shown breaking free of its rope. And we can surmise that he is the talking catfish with which a princess enjoys an episode of intimacy in a scene best described as Hans Christian Andersen after the watershed.

The film's world is one in which all forms are not only equal, but liable to blur into each other. Jen, Boonmee's sister-in-law, tells a story about her father, who once stayed in the forest until he could speak with the animals. Boonmee's home is alive with insects, their buzzing reflected in the low electronic drone of the score. There are worms in the tamarind fruit and more primate-spirits like Boonsong running around in the undergrowth. Weerasethakul, an authentic sensualist, gives his film texture and odour. The honey produced by Boonmee's bees is "chewy as bubblegum". A monk who smells of lemongrass is said to be edible. The film describes in abstract terms the feeling of being alive, with none of the distinctions between past and future usually demanded by fictional narratives. In this context, the use of photographs in one sequence suggests Chris Marker's La jetée, the ultimate study in memory, which is comprised of almost nothing but stills.

Weerasethakul uses familiar, accessible visual language. His skill lies in assembling it in such a way that we experience the ­sensation of having discovered a new and ­uncorrupted tongue. l

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron