Red Dawn:  Specters of Communism in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

 

Critical reception to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), a Thai film that won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in the year of its release, remains wildly polarized.   In one camp, mostly populated by professional film critics, the verdict flirts with ecstasy:  “It’s barely a film; more a floating world” (Sukhdev Sandu in The Daily Telegraph) (1); “A work of unostentatious beauty and uncloying sweetness” (J. Hoberman in The Village Voice) (2) ; “To sample one of his films is to dive in to the cosmic pool of his imagination” (David Jenkins in Time Out London) (3).   In the other camp, populated by online readers of such reviews and more “common sense” film critics, the verdict edges toward brutally.  “The worst film ever made,” wrote a certain Winyou in a comment posted on Time Out London.  “[I]t is so bad that I would prefer to go to a concentration camp than sit through this JUNK of a film and I am Thai” (4).    Another comment, written by Brandon Judell in IndieWIRE, noted:  “Truly one of the worst films of the year.  Pure fodder for pseudo-intellectual cinephiles.  A young man has sex with the monkey spirits and winds up walking around in bad gorilla outfits with red lights for eyes?” (5).   Scrolling through other negative reviews, a single word invariably popped up:  “Boring.”

While my own response is firmly situated in the first camp, my interest in the film rejects the mystifying aesthetic elements praised by many of its cheerleaders.   Indulging Buddhist ideas of reincarnation in Thai culture, favorable reviews point to the film’s “fantasy,” “magic,” “riddles,” “cryptic” elements, and “mythological dimensions” (6).  But, in my view, Weerasethakul’s Brechtian, anti-melodramatic reserve (his characters stare at family ghosts with a bare flicker of surprise) collapses many of these orientalist categories.  To be sure, over the course of the movie, Buddhist spirituality battles more banal aspects of materialism and contemporary politics for supreme meaning.  But, as I will try to suggest in this essay, the political-materialist dimension wins out—a design reviewers fail to acknowledge.   Surprisingly, the fact that the film won Cannes during a period of fierce street battles in Bangkok between government forces and so-called “red shirts”–supporters of Thailand’s rural poor from areas like the Isan region of northeastern Thailand, where Uncle Boonmee is set–went almost entirely unnoticed in the reviews (7).    In what follows, then, I try to tease out something of this unseen political texture in Weerasethakul’s masterpiece, while paying particular attention to the legacy of communist and neo-communist (“red shirt”) struggles in Thailand.

Not enough of attention has been paid to the subtle cinematic allusions in Uncle Boonmee.  In the film’s stunning opening sequence, shot at night in hues of blue-green, a water buffalo wrestles free of the rope binding it to a tree and runs across a moon-lit paddy.   J. Hoberman summons Pather Panchali (1955), Satyajit Ray’s debut feature about rural life in Bengal, as the point of reference here.  But a more adequate allusion, one that I feel the director deliberately makes, is to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), a film opening with a donkey freeing itself from the dregs of human captivity.   Much like what we find in Bresson’s Catholic vision, Uncle Boonmee constantly tinkers with intersections between animal and human worlds.   The moral or sexual calculus playing out in the animal world often bleeds into the human one—though, in the more fantastic moments of Weerasethakul’s film, the two indelibly morph together (when a catfish performs cunnilingus on a princess, animal and human worlds appear ecstatically hybrid).   More importantly, though, both films are set on rural farms, in economies that never seem entirely divorced from their feudal roots.   Uncle Boonmee, while dying of kidney failure, takes over a tamarind plantation in rural Isan.   For much of the movie, he seems unassumingly sweet.  But when engaging with the Lao workers on his plantation, our assessment of his character is quietly defamiliarized.   Walking toward the tamarind trees on a sunny afternoon, Boonmee’s sister asks the house servant, a young Lao who tends to her brother’s sickness, whether he is paid for his labor.  No answer is forthcoming.  The omission is pregnant:  clearly, he is not paid for his work; a kind of feudal economy persists on the settlement.   As for the field workers:  when Uncle Boonmee gathers them together around the tamarind trees, he speaks to them in pidgin French, a relic of the colonial occupation in Laos.  In essence, then, a faint preservation of feudal-imperial culture undergirds Boonmee’s political orientation.

The more telling cinematic allusion—one that speaks directly to Thailand’s contemporary political landscape—appears near the end of the film.   In the scene leading up to this moment (I’ll get to the allusion shortly), Uncle Boonmee tells his sister that karma has led to his illness.   Yet karmic cause and effect is shaped, in this case, not so much by a personal religious code as by political forces of a global magnitude.  “I’ve killed too many communists,” Boonmee says.  “You’ve killed a lot of bugs, too,” his sister responds, attempting to soothe her brother’s conscience with a Buddhist dictum about universal life (bugs are just as worthy of life as humans, and their death should be equally mourned).   But Boonmee wants none of this.  He turns over in his bed with a slight grunt, unsatisfied.  “You killed communists for the nation, right?” says his sister, trying again to relieve the moral and physical suffering she sees in front of her.   Before Boonmee can answer, the moment passes.  We’re onto another scene.   The audience is left in the dark about Uncle Boonmee’s murderous skeletons.

Although deliberately veiled, beneath the surface of this exchange lies residual memory of the armed struggle over a communist presence in Isan.  Beginning with the American involvement in the Vietnam, “the Kingdom [of Siam] did duty as a front-line anti-communist state, servicing the eight major American military bases on its soil with ‘rest and recreation’ [i.e., prostitution] facilities” (8).    In this seedy climate, as power and capital moved from the countryside to Bangkok, the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) “carried on their struggle in remote rural areas [like Isan] which traditionally had had next to no political importance, but which now, in an age of territorially defined nation-states, had become accepted…as a significant political arena” (9).   According to Benedict Anderson, “In the early years of the state’s counter-insurgency campaigns, violence (including murder) against the rural population [thought to be communist sympathizers] remained largely the prerogative of the central state apparatus itself…Of particular interest were the sizeable numbers of rural and small-town Thai who were enrolled in paramilitary security units while the American money lasted, but demobilized when this money ran out” (10).  This is obviously the type of counter-insurgency activity Uncle Boonmee reflects upon in the exchange with his sister.  Somehow the mystical properties of karma have taken on the hardened valence of class struggle.

As I suggested, this exchange between brother and sister leads directly into the film’s pivotal scene—an electrifying sequence meant to echo Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962).   Like Marker’s avant-garde science fiction film, constructed entirely in still photos and filmed at an airport, this pivotal passage from Uncle Boonmee captures, at once, an otherworldly, almost futurist vision and a roughly discernable political allegory.   In a voiceover, as the first still appears—a photograph of a paramilitary soldier leading a man in a gorilla (guerilla?) suit by a chain through the bushy scrub of Isan—Uncle Boonmee says, “Last night I dreamt of the future.  I arrived there in a sort of time machine.”  As the voiceover continues—accompanied by shots of young paramilitaries lounging in the bush; paramilitaries posing with the figure in the gorilla suit; civilian youths throwing rocks at an unseen target; the same kids photographing a shirtless (dead?) friend near a body of water—amidst this enigmatic montage, Boonmee says:

“The future city was ruled by an authority able to make anyone disappear.  When they found ‘past people,’ they shone the light at them.  That light projected images of them onto the screen, from the past until their arrival in the future.  Once those images appeared, these ‘past people’ disappeared.  I was afraid of being captured by authorities because I had many friends in this future.  I ran away.  But wherever I ran, they still found me.”

I won’t pretend to make perfect sense of Boonmee’s dream or the Marker-inspired stills that accompany it.   Still, the fact that the sequence is the closest thing to a climax in the movie, appearing immediately before Boonmee’s death and alongside still photographs that mark a radical formal departure from the director’s free-flowing, long-take cinema—this indicates something of sequence’s paramountcy in the overall design.  Clearly (if anything is clear in a dream), Boonmee faces a specter of the past repositioned in the politics of the future.  Words like “disappear” and “projected images” may reveal something about the phantasmic qualities of the cinematic medium and its uneasy relationship to photography.  More precisely, though, they allude to the idea of making guerillas “disappear,” and to the problem of having the “image” of the Red “projected” into the future.  Having “many friends” in this future, Boonmee now finds himself among the hunted, as if the tables have been turned   In this way, the film unearths a shattering relationship between counter-insurgency of times past and a new impression rising in the dawn of the immediate present—that is, in the form of “red shirts,” distant ideological cousins to Thai communists of old; a force that recently won back political office in Thailand (11).  Why other critics fail to unpack this rich political undercurrent in the film remains unclear.  Perhaps the enduring, orientalist idea of Asia, and the refusal to recognize spirituality and historical materialism as curious bedfellows in the non-West, props up an illusion.

[1] Sukhdeve Sanhu, “Cannes Film Festival 2010:  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, review,” Daily Telegraph, May 21, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/cannes-film-festival/7750613/Cannes-Film-Festival-2010-Uncle-Boonmee-Who-Can-Recall-His-Past-Lives-review.html (accessed July 25, 2011).

[2] J. Hoberman.  “Spirits in the Material World in Uncle Boonmee,” Village Voice, March 2, 2011, http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-03-02/film/spirits-in-the-material-world-in-uncle-boonmee (accessed July 25, 2011).

[3] David Jenkins, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” Time Out London, November 16-24 issue, 2010, http://www.timeout.com/film/reviews/88649/uncle-boonmee-who-can-recall-his-past-lives.html (accessed July 25, 2011).

[4] Ibid, March 2, 2011 (online comment posted by Winyou).

[5] BrandonJudell comment posted (October 9, 2010) to Eric Kohn, “Impenetrable Fantasy:  ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,’” indieWIRE, May 21, 2010, http://www.indiewire.com/article/cannes_review_impenetrable_fantasy_uncle_boonmee_who_can_recall_his_past_li/ (accessed July 25, 2011).

[6] Ibid (Eric Kohn’s original review).

[7] Of the reviews I read, only Sukhdeve Sandhu’s, in The Daily Telegraph, made any allusion to these events.

[8] Kasian Tejapira, “Toppling Thaksin,” New Left Review 39, (2006): 10.

[9] Benedict Anderson, Specter of Comparisons (New York and London:  Verso Press, 2000), 37.

[10] Ibid, 37-8.

[11] I’m referring, of course, to the recent victory of Yingluck Shinawatra, the country’s first female prime minister and sister of billionaire phone mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, founder of (what is now called) the Puea Thai Party (PTP).  While “red shirt” support for the party is nowhere near universal, the specter of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) behind Yingluck’s victory looms large in the Thai imagination.

 

 

 

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