This was to be the U.S. premiere with director in attendance until the stupid New York Film Festival stole him away. Still, third U.S. screening ever for a top-shelf auteur’s new Cannes-winning feature ain’t bad for Emory. Too bad they couldn’t drum up more interest – maybe 40 people in attendance. Too bad it played from DVD (in a room with a 35mm projector), also. Atlanta film culture sucks.
When I saw Tropical Malady I fell for the atmosphere (there wasn’t much else to that movie but atmosphere), the sounds, the magic and the jungle. Syndromes and a Century added slow, quizzical camera moves and characters with shifting identities. So this one was the best of both worlds, like a small set of Syndromes characters plopped into Malady’s magical forest, still feeling more like an original vision than a retread.
Boonmee runs a farm in the country, has a personal nurse (an immigrant, possibly illegal, from Laos) to tend to his kidney problems. Jen (sister of B’s late wife) and Tong (a young relative, maybe a nephew) come to visit from the city. It’s a peaceful tour around the farm until Boonmee’s wife Huay materializes at the dinner table, and then his son Boonsong emerges from the forest. Boonsong had been lost to the family for many years, having run into the forest to start a family with the monkey ghosts and apparently become one himself. Of course all this is strange, but only Boonmee realizes his family has returned because he is about to die, so the next day he tries convincing Jen to move to the farm. Finally Huay leads the three (Boonsong has left) into the jungle, and into a giant cave, where she drains her husband’s kidneys one final time. At the funeral Tong is made a temporary monk, but is uncomfortable so he visits Jen’s hotel room where she’s counting gift money with her daughter, and takes Jen out to get some food. But after they get up from the bed and start to leave the room, they also remain on the bed watching TV – a final bonkers scene in case the audience got too complacent after Boonmee’s death.
Unless it happened when I left to use the bathroom, Boonmee never vocally recalled his past lives, but there are unexplained scenes which might refer to them. The movie opens with a cow (NYFF says it’s a water buffalo) snapping its rope and lumbering into the forest, maybe glimpsing a monkey ghost before being retrieved by its keeper. Late in the film there’s a photo montage of soldiers who apparently capture a gorilla. And in the middle there’s a scene with a princess stopping at a waterfall on her way through the forest. She intends a tryst with one of her servants (seemingly not their first) but drives him away, accusing him of loving only her status, not her beauty. Then she peers into the lake and sees herself beautiful beneath the water, wades in, dropping all her jewelry, and has sex with a flattering catfish. Was Boonmee the catfish? Did his hookup with the princess provide the bad karma that led to his kidney ailment?
I knew I recognized Tong, but didn’t realize he played the monk in Syndromes and a Century. That’s interesting, since he’s play-acting as a monk in this movie. He was supposed to only stay a few days but ditched on the first night, showering and changing into his street clothes at Jen’s place. In Syndromes, the monk wanted to be a DJ, and denied another character’s story of reincarnation. Before that, the same actor played a character named Tong in Tropical Malady – a definite thread through Weerasethakul’s last three features, even if recognizing that thread doesn’t clear up any of their mysteries.
Watched again summer 2011 with Jimmy, this time on handsome 35mm at Cinefest – lovely! I’m sure that photo montage with the soldiers/gorilla and the incongruent voiceover is important, given that it comes right before (or during) Boonmee’s death, but still can’t figure what it means.
A.W. says that parts (the cheap gorilla suit?) were inspired by classic Thai TV and cinema, that his father died of kidney failure, and that there are plenty of deleted scenes with the princess that he hopes will be on the DVD.