I saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at ten o’clock on a Thursday morning near the end of the Sydney Film Festival. I couldn’t recall if I’d ever seen a film in a theater so early, even at school. The State Theatre was rather full; not surprisingly most of the clientele were middle-aged or old people. No doubt many of them were there because Uncle Boonmee had just recently won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Others were probably out to see every film in competition; and a few would have been subscribers willing to give anything in the festival a go.

I wondered what the oldies thought. It might be the epitome of a film that earns raves and awards but leaves general audiences cold. You’ve got to hand it to highly-regarded Thai director Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul for presenting his own startling vision on his own time, and making few concessions to conventional plotting or suspense. It’s a quiet film. The audience I saw it with was even more quiet. Were they drawn in by this “contemplative” film? Or were they asleep?

A pungent commentary by Nick James in Sight & Sound (noted in this blog) bemoans what he calls “Slow Cinema,” accusing director Semih Kaplanoğlu, director of the Berlin-prizewinning Honey (also at SFF) of being passive-aggressive and elitist. “There are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine.” Regardless of what James thinks of Weerasethakul’s aesthetic, he might have been describing Uncle Boonmee on behalf of the punters. And to be honest it bored me at times (unlike Honey, which I loved through and through.) But I was also very fascinated, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’ve not seen any of Weerasethakul’s other work but now I’m curious.

Thanapat Saisaymar plays a middle-aged man with a failed kidney who retires to the country. Attended by relatives and caregivers, Boonmee reflects on his life peacefully but with considerable sorrow – he believes his illness is karmic punishment for killing communists while in the army, and is convinced he’s doomed. He might also have death on the mind because he’s frequently joined by the melancholy ghosts of his wife and son. Eventually the narrative gives way to a series of dreamlike excursions into Boonmee’s past lives – not so much portraits of history as ephemeral, sometimes surreal sketches, including an astonishing, disturbingly erotic encounter between an aging princess and a talking catfish.

Intertwining these various devices, Weerasethakul weaves a portrait of contemporary Thailand that includes  subtle commentary on the government and military; it’s given depth by its sense of weird history and legend; the whole thing enhanced by Buddhist spirituality. The cinematography is gorgeous: the Thai countryside is wonderfully rendered in widescreen and visually signifies the story’s differing moods. The sunny, life-affirming scenes on Boonmee’s farm, like the carefree moment when he shares honey off the comb with his sister (one of many reminders of Honey for me, especially as I saw it the same week), are starkly contrasted with the misty darkness of the haunted, timeless jungle where Boonmee feels he is called to die.

And, yes, at its best the film, perhaps reflecting its Buddhist outlook, is meditative or indeed entrancing. Differing episodes and shifting realities are seamlessly and organically connected by Weerasethakul’s very restrained but somehow powerfully insistent direction. It’s not without suspense, albeit a kind that burns so dimly you sometimes forget it’s there.

Call me easy to please, but what I loved about this film is the element of fantasy. To me, movies should depict the improbable and the fabulous as often as possible. Since the seminal From the Earth to the Moon, fantasy represents something essential about cinema, but lately it’s somehow been relegated to commercial blockbusters, cult fare, or kids’ stuff. I’m always happy when a “serious” auteur shuns realism and goes for something mysterious or otherworldly.

The ghosts in Uncle Boonmee are really cool, especially the monkey ghosts. They’re unspeakably eerie from a distance — creeping silently through the jungle, appearing to mortals with their baleful, glowing red eyes at portentious moments in their lives — but are gentler on closer inspection, resembling black-furred wookies. Without having seen his other films I shouldn’t go as far as to say Weerasethakul has been influenced by Miyazaki, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Miyazaki’s work with the animistic spirit-creatures, the mystical view of nature, and the deep-rooted sense of human lives and fates determined or enhanced by powerful magical forces. (Though I must say I don’t think this film is as visionary or perfectly realized as anything Miyazaki’s done.)

Uncle Boonmee does cross the aforementioned line into boredom a few times. I don’t think I’m being a philistine to suggest that a few of the scenes consisting of the characters quietly smalltalking, or sitting and watching TV and not talking at all, are a bit indulgent, or that the obscure conclusion of the film is rather empty and disappointing. Repeated viewings are no doubt called for; sometimes abstract or challenging music can reveal more melody or structure upon further listening and I can imagine Weerasethakul’s filmmaking style works the same way.

In fact — and at the risk of sounding like a hopeless film nerd — the boredom was actually okay with me. I might have felt unusually amiable because of the early hour of the screening, or maybe I was just willing to trust it because of good reviews from friends. Even when my attention wandered for a while, or I got frustrated with a particularly slow scene, I found the total effect intact. I reckon Joe knows what he’s doing. For a film that puts oldies to sleep the way it does, Uncle Boonmee is powerful stuff. I felt quite haunted when I left the theatre.