"My eyes are open, but I can't see," the titular Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) says at one point in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. "Maybe you just need time to adjust to the dark," another character responds. Viewers may similarly need some time to adjust to writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's fragmented and slow, but rewarding, sixth feature. Its striking, lyrical visuals propel a hypnotic tale about the ways in which life as we know it can interact with life beyond what we understand.
Based on the book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Buddhist monk Phra Sripariyattiweti, Uncle Boonmee is the first Thai entry to win the Palme d'Or, which it did at Cannes last year. As he wrestles with his mortality, the terminally ill Boonmee encounters spirit forms of his dead wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and long-missing son (Jeerasak Kulhong), while also reliving experiences from his apparent past lives.
The film is (necessarily) eerie, but also comfortable; its languid pacing allowing the plot—such as it is—to wash over the audience. In place of a score are great stretches of silence and a layer of spooky, atmospheric sounds that bolster the movie's meditative mise-en-scene. The collection of characters and interconnected vignettes that run throughout the primary story often appear random, but can't simply be dismissed as non sequiturs. Boonmee consistently grapples with big questions, but still allows for levity, establishing a natural tone that both enhances its mystical elements and occasionally threatens to bore.
Rich, often seemingly impenetrable, and always fascinating, Weerasethakul's is a singular vision whose images and mysteries stay with you long after the credits roll. Uncle Boonmee is haunting in all the right ways.