MARCH 3, 2011
The Film Desk Artists Public Domain
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The city of Srinagar, in Kashmir, is the setting of Zero Bridge. Its maker, Tariq Tapa, American-born and -educated, has a Kashmiri father who often took him to spend summers in Kashmir. Now the son’s first feature, for which he did everything—screenplay, directing, shooting, and sound—is the result of sharp-eyed infatuation with the place.
It opens literally on Zero Bridge, which crosses a river that runs through the city. A youth named Dilawar, lately arrived from Delhi, stands on the bridge, waiting to meet someone, and a soldier orders him to move on. No lingering on the bridge—a precaution against terrorism. (All through the picture we hear radio reports of political shootings and bombings.) Luckily, the person for whom Dilawar is waiting, a cousin, comes along on a motor scooter and picks him up.
Tapa’s film doesn’t sprawl like so many recent films that are novice directors’ homages to their youth, yet it has some of the earmarks of this relatively new genre. He plunges us into texture, into strands and counter-strands of Srinagar life, just as those other films did with their settings. But unlike most of them, he has created characters and a story.
Dilawar, independent and unafraid, left his adoptive mother (whom he reports to in his mind from time to time) in Delhi. The first thing we learn about him is that he is a skilled pickpocket. The cousin on the scooter belongs to a crime gang that the newcomer wants to join. To prove his qualifications, Dilawar steals a pocketbook from a nearby young woman who is busy on a cell phone. (How and why he learned his skill I wish we found out.) Apparently he passes the test and is accepted by the cousin.
We may think we are in for an account of a criminal career, but Dilawar engages in a lot of other things as well. He stays with an uncle, a mason who tries to teach him bricklaying. He has some education, because he makes money doing math homework for a few kids. At one point we see him bowling in a cricket match. (Apparently the sun never sets on the British pastime.) There is also a cash deal with a crook regarding the passport he found in the girl’s pocketbook. Apparently Tapa is telling us that some people in Srinagar, in order to get along, have to be vocationally and morally versatile. Matters are further knotted when Dilawar’s uncle sends him on an errand to a shipping office. The girl he robbed works in the office. He recognizes her: she doesn’t know him.
In their culturally reserved way, this odd pair become interested in each other. She teaches him chess. He takes her to tea. She has studied physics in the United States, and she wants to get out of Srinagar. So does he. In time they reach the point where she tells him that she has some money and can take care of them both for a while if they leave. A plan is made. Then matters cloud. The last scene is a return to Zero Bridge.
Some conditions of the film’s making govern its style. Tapa had only a small camera and a minimal budget; hence a lot of the shooting is hand-held and close. The benefit of this camera limitation is intimacy—a pleasant pressure. Also—and not insignificantly—Tapa could not afford professional actors, so he had to find people who were willing to be in his film. Most of them simply do what they are supposed to do competently enough. Mohamad Imran Tapa, the director’s cousin, a long way from anyone’s idea of a leading man, doesn’t have outstanding talent, but he is sufficiently present to let the camera do its magical transforming.
This performance, such as it is, exemplifies yet again a wizardry of film that has been with us at least since neo-realism began. The camera is not only a recorder of light: it is also, in the right conditions, a completer of persons. It completes Dilawar. This sufficiently realized character bounces around from one post to another like a semi-pathetic human pinball until he is out of the frame. But Taniya Khan as the girl is quite a different instance. Khan is an individual talent. Lovely and dignified, she plays with delicate shadings and inescapable charm.
Of course Srinagar itself helps to hold us. The same story, more or less, set in Milwaukee or Liverpool would lack its gritty glamour. But a good part of Tapa’s purpose, in addition to his story, was to show us why he finds the place fascinating. So for this reason, too, Zero Bridge succeeds—in presenting a slice of an exotic city’s life.
The title of a new Thai film is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which I’ll abbreviate hereafter. It was written and directed by the distinguished Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who (I’ve read) generously allows himself to be called Joe. I’ll dare to accept. Besides its emblematic title and director’s name, the picture bears another sort of signet: Uncle Boonmee won last year’s Cannes Festival prize.
Joe’s screenplay, based on a novel by a Buddhist monk, is—we must assume—very responsive to Thai culture, to Thai beliefs and interests. It deals with the last days of a prosperous Thai farmer—he produces tamarinds and honey—as he recalls or fantasizes about episodes in his past, and these episodes often contain embodied spirits. It seems fair to infer that this element is familiar and congenial to the Thai audience. When a modern American theater director tackles Hamlet or Macbeth, he has to decide how to treat the play’s supernatural elements. Shakespeare’s audience clearly believed in them—or at least accepted them as given—but the director today has to decide how to make them credible. For Joe, however, the audience’s acceptance of the supernatural is obviously no problem. Their acceptance, strangely enough, helps us to do the same.
Early in his film, Boonmee and some others are dining outdoors one evening when a woman whom they recognize slips in and sits at the table. She is Boonmee’s wife, who died long ago, and the others speak to her as if she had simply gone for a stroll. Soon a figure looking like a human monkey also joins them—Boonmee’s son, who disappeared thirteen years earlier and has become a Monkey Ghost, a term they all understand. We viewers are to a degree entranced by the ease with which these visitors, and later ones, are accepted.
The supernatural is only part of the film’s presumable conformance to Thai culture: the shape of the film is another such. Neither dramatic nor narrative, it is a series of episodes handled in a manner that the audience seemingly recognizes. For instance, the picture begins with a twilight shot of a huge ox against a purple sky. Then we see a young ox tethered nearby that breaks loose and heads toward the big one. A young man follows and recaptures the young one. This episode is never explained, but in the picture’s perspective we can later see that we are expected to understand this as a small incident in Boonmee’s past that looms large, as small incidents often do, in his memory.
Soon we see Boonmee today, who is suffering from renal failure and is given dialysis at home. (This modern touch is intended apparently to affirm that the supernatural persists in the age of science.) The picture then proceeds as if it were being remembered: things happen in sequence or not, directly or tangentially concerned with Boonmee. One spacious sequence takes place in an enormous mystical cavern that Boonmee somehow connects with his birth. In another sequence, a princess—possibly Boonmee’s wife as he has imagined her—is carried in a litter through a forest, looks into a pool, sees her face as she is and then as she used to be, then hears a man’s voice speaking to her from the pool’s depths, claiming to be a fish. Responding to such sequences, which is easy, is like a momentary visit to Thailand.
Comfortable to the last with his assumptions about his audience, Joe concludes with a sequence that takes place after Boonmee’s death—in two settings, a modern hotel room complete with television and a sleek restaurant. Spirit and flesh are divisible—no fuss about it, they simply divide before our eyes. Moreover, the television is playing scenes of Western politics. (Political thoughts, particularly hatred of rebels, fringe the film throughout: another example of Joe’s belief in the immanence of the metaphysical in today’s world. The communist rebels that we hear about have not wiped out the non-materialist power.)
Watching Uncle Boonmee is less a usual viewing of a film than it is like floating along in a boat that lets us encounter one scene after another, scenes that relate somehow to the title. Thai music enriches the voyage. The floating itself is almost as great a part of the picture as what we see.
The actors, most of whom have been in some of the director’s previous work, understand thoroughly the ambience that he is creating, and they give a pleasant gentleness to both the scenes that we might expect and to the others. Their performances help to make Uncle Boonmee at the last a dreamy extension of our film-going experience.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.