The 48th New York Film Festival kicked off last night with David Fincher’s highly anticipated The Social Network. I haven’t yet seen it (word from friends and colleagues is almost uniformly positive), but I would like to briefly highlight another movie showing twice at the festival this weekend: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the latest unclassifiable whatsit from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Over the past decade, Apichatpong has risen to the top tier of global art-cinema directors with a series of allusive head-scratchers including, most recently, Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006). His latest feature abandons the bifurcated structure of his past few films for something more diffuse and intuitive. The plot, such as it is, centers around Uncle Boonmee, who’s not long for this world due to an unspecified kidney problem. As he nears death, he’s visited by various entities from the spirit world, including his late wife and a son who’s been transformed into a red-eyed ape-like creature. Like Boonmee’s relatives and caretakers, we’re surprised at first by the visitors but soon begin to take it all in stride.
Uncle Boonmee is full of references not only to Thai animism but also to various aspects of the country’s history and popular culture, none of which I’m remotely qualified to write about. Fortunately, no background in these areas is required to appreciate the sheer beauty of Uncle Boonmee, which, like Apichatpong’s previous films, gets a lot of mileage out of the rugged landscapes of Thailand’s rural north, nor to marvel at the director’s effortless integration of all the disparate material. As Apichatpong indicated at his NYFF press conference earlier this week, each reel of the film was given a distinct look, a strategy most salient during a magical scene involving a princess and a rather libidinous catfish. Arguably, the film’s highlight, it’s one of several sequences with an ambiguous narrative relationship to the main action. (I hate to resort to the old critic’s trick of using one film as a club to beat on another, but the way Apichatpong integrates dreams and fantasies into not only the film’s action but its very DNA highlights how pedestrian and unimaginative something like Inception really is.)
Those familiar with Apichatpong’s sui generis brand of cinema can imagine how matter-of-factly all the fantastic happenings play out onscreen, but for the uninitiated, it’s important to emphasize what a profoundly generous filmmaker he is, the polar opposite of arch or pretentious. Like Apichatpong’s previous films, Uncle Boonmee is full of wry comedy, but the laughter never comes at the expense of either his characters or his audience, instead arising from a shared sense of absurdity at the collision of worlds onscreen. It all adds up to an often thrilling, occasionally confusing, and always restful experience, with the deliberate pacing giving you just the right amount of time to let it all sink in. A masterpiece is one thing, but a masterpiece that lets you breathe—now that’s something special.