Let’s say you’ve never heard of gay, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s understandable. His movies, like Tropical Malady (the one about two gay boyfriends, one of whom turns into a tiger) and Syndromes and a Century (the one about the director’s doctor parents, in which the story simply starts over mid-film with new characters), don’t ever play multiplexes.
Instead they screen in arthouse theaters and museums. And even then audiences often leave baffled by what they’ve just witnessed. His characters drift through dreamlike states, his stories stop and start, double-back on themselves or exist in simultaneous plot strands of go-nowhere bliss. And Weerasethakul’s homosexuality informs his stories or it doesn’t. Standard expectations of what a gay filmmaker does or doesn’t do just don’t apply with this guy.
Which brings us to the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, out on DVD today. Uncle Boonmee, a Thai farmer dying of kidney failure, finds himself visited by the spirit of his dead wife and by his long-lost adult son. Of course, that long-lost son spent his time away from home transforming into a tall, Bigfoot-like “Monkey Ghost” with glowing red eyes, but you take visits from your adult children however you can get them.
During these encounters Boonmee’s past lives play out: he was a water buffalo, he was a catfish, he was even a princess who winds up having sex with the catfish. Don’t bother asking how that can happen. It just does.
Full of rural Thai legend, Buddhist myth, political allusions and monks watching television, it’s trippy and beautiful, slow and strange, the coolest, weirdest reincarnation movie you’ll ever see. And it makes at least as much sense as any Transformers film.