Until now, I had never seen an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie on the big screen. In fact, I'd been holding off altogether on seeing one of Joe's movies (Weerasethakul prefers to be called "Joe" and I was thrilled when I heard a NYFF staff member call to him as such). But why had I abstained from his work? Well, the maker of two of the last decade's most reverentially loved movies Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady was, I had heard, a filmmaking giant. And, fittingly, I wanted my first experience with him to be in the theater, in the darkness and with those high ceilings. Man, did I get what I wanted.
On the second day of my dive into the NYFF experience, I caught the East Coast premiere of Weerasethakul's Palme D' Or-winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. At 9 am, and harried after a crazy subway trip from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, I think I took my seat with my lips pursed. Okay, genius. Impress me.
I held off giving over to Weerasethakul longer than I'd like to admit. I stubbornly thought not much of the gorgeous opening shot: an ox tethered by rope to a tree, with an elegant plume of smoke before him in the deep blue night. SPOILER ALERT: the ox breaks away, and escapes into the jungle. After a ranch hand leads the beast back to its post, Weersethakul cuts away to his film's most memorable image:
(this is an internet find, and though I darkened it, it's still not the image, in all its blues and greens and reds, that I recall from the film)
I did not expect this movie to worm its way into my dreams. I expect this of no movie, and as far as I can remember, no movie has ever achieved this status, at least not so soon after I'd first seen it. But Uncle Boonmee staked claim to at least one of my recent nights. And, upon awakening, I'm embarrassed to say I woke up practicing my pronunciation of a name I once found impossible: Weerasethakul.
I think it was that last freakin' scene. It goes over into another dimension, and I was then won over, totally--like IN LOVE won over. Nevermind the fact that, before, there was an unbelievable sojourn down into the depths of the earth, with the stars of the sky in evidence, and life in the smallest pond, too; forget that there was a princess adorned, and that blue-green Apocalypse Now forest; forget that there was the taste of tamarind-flavored honey, and please don't mention that spirit that appears--WHOA!-- before the eyes, at the dinner table, like the greatest special effect ever performed. (Really, it stunned me, like it does the characters onscreen, and the scene made me think Weerasethakul was a bonafide magician.)
Anyway, in my dream, I was skiing down a snowy slope with Joe Weerasethakul, and I only remember that it was night, and we hardly talked, even at the bottom of the hill. And then I remember seeing the LCD red eyes of the Monkey Ghosts, and I knew then I was in my bed, hardly asleep. I barely recall waking up, and here it is Uncle Boonmee can recall his past lives: maybe as an ox that broke away from the farm, or as an amorous fish, or as a healthy young man that killed Communists, and insects, for his country.
Hearing Joe talk after the movie, during the festival's Q&A, I learned there's much in Uncle Boonmee that's special to him, special to his culture. That stuff is alien to a Georgia boy like me. But that doesn't keep Uncle Boonmee from penetrating my subconscious, with its killer droning, chirping soundtrack lulling us into meditative territory. What, you might ask, is this phantasmagoric picture about? I might happily ask you the same thing after hearing you've seen it, while holding my own theories close to my chest. Ultimately, I'll now only say that Uncle Boonmee deals primarily with the glory of its own vision.
PS: I saw a friend talking to Joe, alone, after the movie. I wanted to join in, but I couldn't think of anything to say, so I let the opportunity go by the wayside. What does one say to a poet?