“My past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.” These are the words on the very first frame of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The pleasant surprise in this “Joe” Apichatpong Weerasethakul film (which features everything from Chewbacca-looking ghost monkeys to a lascivious catfish) is the fact that simply being mindful of those very words can help with the process of understanding it. But is this work literally about the Buddhist concept of reincarnation as its title might lead you to believe? Or is Joe having a little fun at our expense by throwing at us a playful mishmash of magical realism? The truth is that not even Apichatpong himself may have the answer.
Because the film is centered on a protagonist who is dying of kidney failure, the theme of death permeates its atmosphere. Yet the film avoids giving us the usual mournful drama associated with dying and instead offers exhilarating glimpses into what can only be described as the cycle of life and death. As Boonmee prepares for his death, he is led by the ghost of his dead wife and accompanied by his sister-in-law and nephew on a trip to a cave. In an extraordinary sequence shot by a handheld camera, Apichatpong takes the four characters and the audience on a journey into what may be the collective unconscious. Boonmee himself describes the cave as a womb, and the womb turns out not only to incubate human beings but all other life forms as well.
As in all of his other works — especially Tropical Malady — Apichatpong infuses this film with his musings on the relationship between nature and human beings. If cinema is a mystical art form which at its finest can provide the guiding myths once given to us by religion and folklore, then Joe remains one of its most enchanting shamans.