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Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Thai plantation-owner Boonmee is dying. Naturally, his relatives come to stay with him during his last days, including his sister-in-law Jen and his nephew Tong. Unnaturally, his deceased wife Huay also shows up. So does his long-lost son Boonsong, now transformed into a ghost monkey, after having taken one for a mate. And there, gathered around the dinner table, is the substance of Uncle Boonmee: death, the afterlife (or, in some cases, the beforelife), and man’s connection to the primal, ancient, dripping natural world.

It’s a charming, oddly moving scene, largely because of the living’s equanimity upon encountering the dead. Jen asks Huay if she received the things Jen sent her via the temple (“Yes, they comforted me.”). She wonders why Huay looks so young, and Boonmee knows the answer: Huay is the same age as when she died. Then attention shifts to Boonsong — he of the glowing red eyes and resplendent black fur — who tells Boonmee that the spirits and animals in the jungle outside can sense his sickness. Boonmee must make ready for his final journey.

In a funny way, the film is a more profound meditation on the mystery of death than anything in How to Live Forever. The uncertainty; the helplessness; the stubborn suspicion that this life matters, that it is not the only life there is: it’s all so achingly human. (When your dead wife comes back to you, what does she do? She helps to drain your kidney, just as she would have done in life.)

As he prepares, Boonmee looks back on his current life and on his lives before this one. Some are humdrum, others reek of mythic significance. He regrets the past (“I killed too many communists”) and ponders the future (“How will I find you?”). Nothing is hurried, and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes no pains to spell out his intentions. But by the time he is finished, it’s a tough call between the cave and the city.

★★

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