About the physical format of the cinema
18 November 2020
Warning: Spoilers
"Puzzling" is the first word that comes to me after seeing Uncle Boonmee remember his past lives. It is obvious that this is not an ordinary movie, and that Apichatpong does not even make an effort to explain the connection between the stories. Therefore, we should not judge it without first knowing a little about its director, the Thai Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his concept of cinema: a material unit of stories.

To begin with, the cinema itself is one of the central elements of the film. Apichatpong has grown up watching Thai cinema and reading stories that he will later translate into this work, such as the story of the princess and the ghostly apparitions. But there is also a particular tribute to the physical concept of cinema. The film was recorded with six celluloid bovines of twenty minutes each at the direction of the director himself. In each bovine, the lighting, the acting and even the setting is different in respective homage to different titles of Thai cinema that he admired as a young man. It is, in terms of the conception of cinema itself, one of the most innovative films of the century. And the more I think about it, the more it fascinates me.

To further understand the tape, we need a bit of context. The film is based on a book of the same name by the Buddhist abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti. In this book it is told how a man named Boonmee came to him to confess that he could remember details of his past lives when he meditated (Buddhism believes that this life is framed in a context between past and future lives). In the book, Boonmee tells the story of the past life of the princess and the ox, which we can also see in the movie. However, and unlike the book, Apichatpong plays at not explicitly telling us the union between these stories and Uncle Boonmee.

Uncle Boonmee is not only novel in conception, but also in the way he deals with certain subjects. An example of this is the appearance of the ox: it moves intuitively and is treated very kindly (do not forget that it is a person's past life). The scene of the princess, apart from the religiosity of that "resurrection", is a critical message to the concept of Western beauty compared to natural beauty. The ape man is the perfect fusion between man and nature, since he is both at the same time; and its history (specifically, photography) tells us about that fascination for the material of cinema and the jungle. The final unfolding arises when the monk takes off his tunic and, with it, changes his carcass and at the same time his history. And, in that photographic dream of possible futures, that fear towards the domestication of the animal and the symbiosis between both worlds is perceived. Apichatpong wrote the script for the film in the jungle, and nobody is surprised.

The film, deep down, tells us about the possible realities that open up to us when we leave our environment and emphasizes the mystique of this doing. But what really works in Uncle Boonmee is the very idea of belonging, because this type of narrative only belongs to the Thai director. Apichatpong tries to separate the experience by presenting different stories and not showing their logical connection. It is the idea of accumulating experiences and making them part of a particular way of seeing reality. It is a completely different way of making movies.

This form of understanding is embodied in the ghostly appearance at Uncle Boonmee's sister's dinner. For Apichatpong, the ghost (like the cinema) is nothing more than "a part of the past that is represented in the present without being there." It is the idea of cinema as something material, an old conception. In fact, the trickery required to represent that appearance is unique to celluloid tape. In addition, in that scene one also reflects on the power of light in the cinema: without it, the cinema does not exist and we cannot distinguish reality. Light sets the limits of the figurative representation of cinema. For this reason, the cinema must dedicate itself to filming all those leaks of light that it has within its reach to represent the natural; everything we can access.

I would like to conclude this comment from Uncle Boonmee recalls his past lives recognizing the difficulty of his full understanding, but also confessing that it is not necessary to do so to enjoy it. To face this type of film, we must be predisposed to perceive beauty in the disconcerting, and in the irrational, discover a different conception of the real.

"Grant yourself the pleasure of not understanding things": Carlos Muguiro, director.
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