This May, George Miller will join the long list of esteemed artists, industry professionals, and celebrities who have served as head of the main competition jury at the Cannes Film Festival. This probably shouldn’t be taken as any sort of clue as to what will end up winning the fest, however. The president of the jury is just one of around 10 people that make that decision every year. Also, reducing a filmmaker’s taste in movies to whatever’s most similar to their own movies is pretty restrictive; just because the director of Mad Max: Fury Road is helping select a Palme D’Or winner doesn’t mean, in other words, that we should expect the film with the most car chases to emerge victorious.
All the same, it remains fascinating to look at Cannes winners through the lens of the people handing them their awards, specifically the people who sit at the top of the jury. When The White Ribbon won the Palme, for instance, president Isabelle Huppert weathered a few accusations of nepotism, given that the actress had worked (and has since worked again) with the film’s director, Michael Haneke. And it wasn’t exactly difficult to see why a jury headed by Clint Eastwood might go for Pulp Fiction, a bold, violent, revisionist American genre movie. The best example, however, is probably Cannes 2010, when blockbuster cinema’s premier gothic fabulist Tim Burton was named president. Take a close look at the 19 films eligible that year and try to guess which one his jury—a group that also included Kate Beckinsale, Benicio Del Toro, and composer Alexandre Desplat—ultimately picked for the Palme. Here’s a clue: It’s the one featuring talking catfish and red-eyed monkey ghosts.
To be fair, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives didn’t have much serious competition. “If you measure the worth of a festival by the average quality of its lineup, this edition looks pretty wretched,” admitted The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo toward the end of the fest, two days after the film premiered to rave reviews and one day before it was named the big winner. But while no one could possibly confuse Uncle Boonmee for a Burton project—it’s a meditative art film, not a whirligig funhouse ride—it’s easy to see what the director of Beetlejuice might like about this surreal fable. In fact, Beetlejuice isn’t such a bad comparison, given how matter-of-factly both films collide the worlds of the living and the dead—and with some humor, too. “How can you expect me to live here, with all the ghosts and migrant workers?” a character comically complains in Boonmee. It’s not possessed yuppies dancing to “Day-O,” but it’s plenty funny in its own right.
Making the extraordinary seem ordinary (and vice versa) is a specialty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the internationally acclaimed Thai filmmaker behind Uncle Boonmee. “Joe,” as he prefers to be called, implants elements of folklore and superstition within otherwise naturalistic studies of rural life, following characters who take everything from apparitions to psychics to shapeshifters entirely in stride. This casual embrace of the fantastic has been an element of the writer-director’s unclassifiable career since the great Tropical Malady, which won the Jury Prize (basically third place) at Cannes in 2004, and it continues to distinguish his newer work, like this year’s consecutively released Mekong Hotel and Cemetery Of Splendor. But it’s Uncle Boonmee, the first and still only Thai film to win the Palme, that best demonstrates Joe’s singular gift for blurring the line separating the the mundane from the outlandish.
Inspired, though not quite based, on a 1983 nonfiction book about a man who claimed to be reincarnated and to have memories of his former lives, Uncle Boonmee is set primarily in a country house situated on the edge of a vast, haunted jungle. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a widower suffering from kidney failure, has chosen to spend his final days here, cared for by his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, playing some version of his character from Tropical Malady). These family members dismiss Boonmee’s fatalistic musings (“Soon you will get better,” they tell him), but the man can sense that he hasn’t much time left—and so, too, can the specters and spirits in the surrounding woods.
These supernatural beings make their presence known in the film’s early pièce de résistance, and maybe the signature scene in Joe’s entire filmography: Seated around a table for a nighttime dinner on their front porch, the characters are visited by two lost loved ones—first Boonmee’s long-dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), who appears out of thin air, and then his son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), who disappeared without a trace years earlier and returns now as a black-furred simian ghost. Joe stages these paranormal arrivals with the skill of a veteran master of horror: Huay fades into sight so gradually, during a long take of banal conversation, that neither the characters nor the audience immediately detect her. Boonsong first appears as a frightening set of red peepers at the bottom of a staircase, moving through the darkness towards them. It’s genuinely spooky—until it isn’t, as Boonmee and his living relatives adjust to the strangeness of the situation, their curiosity overtaking their alarm. The scene is too long to include in its entirety, but the clip above demonstrates the habit Joe’s characters have of just sort of rolling with the weirdness.
Incidentally, “just rolling with the weirdness” is probably the right way to watch this particular director’s films; getting on his unusual wavelength requires surrendering to the mood and mystery, and to the idea that not everything you’re going to see will make strict narrative, logical, or even metaphoric sense. Joe deals in detours, and there are several of them in Uncle Boonmee. The film opens wordlessly, spending several minutes just observing a yak, which escapes its owner and wanders into the woods; the animal, you assume, is one of the titular past lives, though Boonmee never once broaches the topic aloud. Later, Joe puts the main storyline on pause for a brief tangent involving a homely princess sexually serviced by the aforementioned catfish—a sequence as strangely affecting as it is amusing. Again, no explanation is provided, though it doesn’t require a great leap to assume this could be another of our protagonist’s soul-wandering memories.
Harder to parse, even for those who do get on Joe’s wavelength, is a late montage of still images depicting gun-toting soldiers taking one of the film’s simian specters prisoner. Though it stands fine on its own, Uncle Boonmee was conceived as just one part of a larger art-installation project called Primitive, created to commemorate a violent 1965 confrontation between communist fighters and a Thai military force. Only this brief, experimental passage of the movie seems to address that subject matter, with the furry spirits—guys in unconvincing ape costumes, really—as physical embodiments of an unhealed socio-political wound. Like most ghost stories, Uncle Boonmee is about the weight of history, but references to this specific chapter in Thailand’s history feel shoehorned in. The film works better as a general study of the relationship between the past and the present, represented here by the living and the dead.
No one makes movies quite like Joe, who alternates static, tranquil passages of inactivity—characters talking, enjoying nature, or taking quiet car rides down back roads—with frank sex scenes and images that seem ripped straight of the director’s dreams. And no one makes nighttime look as impenetrably dark as he does. It’s no big spoiler to report that Boonmee eventually has to face his passage into the next life, and Joe visualizes that journey as a trudge through the pitch-black woods, followed by a literal passage into an underground cavern. Here, minerals shine like stars in the darkness, sightless fish swim around the ankles of new arrivals, and a hole in the overhead rock formation allows for a reflection of moonlight in the shallow water below.
On the one hand, this is just resourcefulness; while a filmmaker like Burton visualizes the afterlife through elaborate, baroque production design and expensive special effects, Joe does so using the real sights and sounds of the world. At the same time, this hypnotic sequence speaks to the director’s belief in the wonders of the everyday: By making ghosts and other bizarre elements seem “normal,” while enhancing the “abnormal” beauty of backwoods Thailand, Uncle Boonmee suggests that the awe people tend to reserve for their religious tenets could easily be applied to what’s happening right outside their back door.
“Heaven is overrated; there’s nothing there,” Huay tells her dying husband, expressing the film’s healthy, playful skepticism about traditional notions of life after death. Uncle Boonmee eventually switches focus to Tong, who wants to become a monk, until he discovers that he can’t handle the solitude. The character retreats to the creature comforts and companionship of the city—Joe’s films always seem to be juxtaposing rural and urban Thailand—and almost immediately has an out-of-body experience. If there’s sense to be made of this non sequitur, it’s probably that there’s no need to sequester yourself in a temple to get in touch with your spirituality. That can happen almost anywhere, like a hotel room or a karaoke bar.
Bewitching even when it confounds rational explanation, Uncle Boonmee draws from the hokey horror movies of Joe’s youth and plays on the animist beliefs of northeast Thailand. (“I would say about 90 percent of Thais believe [in ghosts],” the director estimated in an interview.) One has to wonder how these films play in his homeland, when they even open there at all; Joe has faced censorship issues in the past and also lost money trying to get his work onto Thai screens. In America, they’re sadly, mostly ignored: Riding in on a wave of buzz and outstanding reviews, Uncle Boonmee couldn’t crawl past $200,000 in domestic ticket sales—and that makes it Joe’s high-grosser in the States. Maybe his films are just built for festivals, where an audience member might be most receptive to something challenging, while also feeling grateful for the dollops of magic—the monkey ghosts, among other offbeat attractions—that Joe liberally spreads across his gentle slices of life. Which is to say, the demographic for these movies is larger than just a shock-haired Hollywood director with a taste for the macabre. They’re for weirdos of all walks.
Did it deserve to win? Again, 2010 wasn’t a strong year for the Cannes competition lineup, which featured several minor works from major directors (Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Ken Loach’s Route Irish) and such divisive titles as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman folly Biutiful and Rachid Bouchareb’s controversial, allegorical Outside The Law. Even the most well-received entries, like Poetry and Of Gods And Men, inspired more quiet admiration than big praise. Uncle Boonmee, which must have looked like a revelation after more than a week of disappointments, would be a worthy winner in any lineup. But it’s not quite as tremendous as Abbas Kiarostami‘s remarkable two-hander Certified Copy, which won the festival’s poster star Juliette Binoche the Best Actress prize. It deserved the big one, too.
Next up: L’Enfant