This week affords a unique opportunity to come in from the cold of the multiplex. You know what’s playing on the big screens. Did you also know that Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” the top-prize winner at last year’s Cannes, has arrived on DVD?
Even with that title, you don’t know where this is going. Dying of kidney failure, the titular Thai farmer (Thanapat Saisaymar) spends his final days among visiting relatives. Not all the relatives are alive themselves, necessarily, or even human. And actually, not all of the visitors are clearly his relatives, except maybe in the cosmic sense that we’re all related.
The cosmic sense is sort of a specialty for Weerasethakul, who also goes by “Joe,” and excels — effortlessly, it seems — at mystification. Just when you think this loitering, all-accepting movie might become a flat-affect bore, one of those “nothing happens” affairs, Boonmee’s long-dead wife materializes out of thin air at the dinner table. Then his long-lost son, now a wookie-like creature with glowing red eyes, slinks up the stairs and joins them. “I couldn’t have experienced this if I hadn’t mated with a monkey ghost,” he says, not exactly explaining. “There are many beings outside,” he also says. “Spirits and animals. They sense your sickness.” Yet somehow the prevailing mood is not ominous but rather lively. There is palpable comfort in the steady chorus of insects, the dusky shimmering jungle.
Later Boonmee concludes that his illness is a karmic reciprocation for having killed too many communists. “But you killed with good intentions,” says his sister-in-law. “And I’ve killed a lot of bugs on my farm,” he replies. This reads neither as a political peeve nor a glib prank. It just is. Likewise the later sex scene with the princess and the talking catfish. A sense has been established that to try shoehorning this into a familiar narrative vector — as folklore or dream logic or surrealism — is to miss out on it. It helps to know that Cannes jury was presided over by Tim Burton last year.
Especially in the context of a midsummer DVD release, “Uncle Boonmee” has the aura of a cultural-studies think piece, something you might watch with mild resentment in a class but then, say an hour or ten years later, be blown away by and forever grateful for.
Annotative DVD supplements include an interview in which the filmmaker allows that he doesn’t really know what the movie is about. Well, it takes a special kind of knowledge, and confidence, to make a film seem almost terminally lulling on purpose. With proximity to death as its most apparent frame of reference, “Uncle Boonmee” seems to ask, “Isn’t being alive just so weird, though?” Weerasethakul, or Joe if you prefer, has tapped into the purest essence of cinema, a simultaneousness of banality and enchantment in which everything is superfluous, and so nothing is.