First Impressions

Limited knowledge leads to wild conjecture in films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Susanne Bier

By / May 2018

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 
directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

After the Wedding 
directed by Susanne Bier

 

For all of the phantasmagoria unleashed in Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” the film is at heart a homily. It conjures a world where sickness sounds like a bell through the woods at twilight, summoning the spirits of lost loved ones to our side as if to the table for dinner.

Around such a table in remote northeastern Thailand, beneath the glow of a single porch light, Boonmee, an ailing beekeeper played with aplomb by the field hand-turned-actor Thanapat Saisaymar, receives a visitation. One moment he is chatting with his nephew (Thong) and sister-in-law (Jen), who have traveled from Bangkok to cook and keep him company, when a spectral figure materializes in an empty chair.

The startled party identifies her as Boonmee’s wife, Huay, who has been dead for nineteen years. Boonmee is embarrassed in the presence of his bride, his self-awareness like that of a youth who finds himself alone for the first time with a woman way out of his league. He has aged through the years, his kidney failure taking a toll. Huay, on the other hand, looks not a day older than when last Boonmee laid eyes on her.

The exchange that follows sends a pang through the heart. Boonmee’s affection for Huay steadily sears through his shock and insecurity. “I often wonder where you are,” he says to her, “if you are alright. If you have enough to eat.” She tells him she has sensed his illness, that she is sorry for his suffering.

The reunion, which plays like a piano etude to Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s hair-metal ballad in “Ghost,” is curtailed by the arrival of a second figure, a grizzled monstrosity we first encountered, albeit in shadow, in the film’s opening sequence. How to describe this monster? Sasquatch meets Manticore? Homo erectus with a rancid case of glaucoma?

The Ghost Monkey, as it comes to be known, lumbers into the frame from out of a B-level horror flick, its glassy red eyes the last thing you expect to glimpse in a film awash in tranquil scenes of pastoral beauty. For that reason, the creature is legitimately horrifying, as eerie as any onscreen beast in recent memory, the Pale Man from Guillermo del Torro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” included.

Like Huay, the Ghost Monkey–whom Jen recognizes by voice as Boonmee’s long-missing son, Boonsong–has homed across the darkness in response to Boonmee’s affliction, only to him the infirmity is less like a summons than a feral scent. There are spirits huddled in the shadows, he tells his father, “hungry animals” rearing to strike.

Resigned to his fate, with Huay to lead him by the hand and Boonsong to keep the keening monsters at bay, Boonmee embarks on a return hike to the cave where in a former life he was born. There he expires in the dust and shadows. His beloveds have padded with him right up to the edge of the afterlife. He passes without hysterics into whatever awaits him, alone.

Weerasethakul, whose other films include “Tropical Malady” (2004) and “Cemetery of Splendor” (2015), interjects into the narrative a flashback from one of Boonmee’s earlier incarnations (a mythic dalliance between a disfigured princess and a swooning catfish) and a vision of a future badgered by gangs of marauding teenagers who drive the ghost monkeys and all other supernatural creatures from the forest for good.

The former is shot on film with poetic flourish (dappled light, swirling torrents); the latter is rendered via a slideshow of waggish, amateur digital photos. The juxtaposition has about it a slightly polemical murmur which echoes through the film’s final sequence, a clinical chapter in which Thong, on the night of his uncle’s funeral, flees the Buddhist temple to grab a warm shower, watch TV, and eat at a garish karaoke restaurant with Jen.

Awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival from a jury chaired by the macabre director Tim Burton, “Uncle Bonmee” suggests that technology, deserving of indictment for disengaging us from nature, signals the death knell of Boonmee’s karmic, transmigratory world, a world steeped in romance and mystery and enlightenment. Maybe so.

In the end, what ensnares you about “Uncle Bonmee” is less the subliminal messaging than the film’s score of incantatory forest sounds, numinous cinematography, and a fistful of unforgettable scenes, many of them featuring Mr. Saisaymar. Whether communing with the dead or treating friends to honey from his bee-swarmed comb, he is this movie’s biggest coup.

 

A wedding becomes a strange reunion in “After the Wedding.”

Eyes speak volumes in Danish director Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding.” Helene looks at Jacob who looks at Anna looking at Jorgen, and in this shouting match of eyeballs that is Anna’s Copenhagen wedding reception, Jacob is the first to cow. For good reason. 

On business in Denmark to drum up support for his floundering Indian orphanage, Jacob has joined the festivities at the insistence of Jorgen, a prospective benefactor who happens to be the father of the bride. Jacob, his suit untailored, his tie askew. He’ll have a flute of champagne, maybe two, then bounce back to India with a handsome check in pocket.

At least that’s the plan before Anna, a swept-bang nymphet of a bride, stands and delivers an unorthodox toast. Jorgen, she divulges, is not her biological father. The words are meant as praise, as a testament to Jorgen’s big-hearted generosity, but for Helene, Jorgen’s wife, they are a public flogging.

Flush with accusation, mercy, and shame, her eyes graze then settle upon Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, the villain from “Doctor Strange”), who rides a wave of confused tears into the chill of the twilit night. Over this strange, silent spectacle presides gregarious Jorgen, who watches Helene go after her ex-lover with a remove that rules out coincidence.

The issue becomes one of motive. Why has Jorgen orchestrated this reunion? Why now? We cannot cease from suspecting schadenfreude. The music, Jorgen’s mien, everything wafts of malice. Jorgen is a rich and powerful man, a billionaire “feared” in business, as one of his minions proclaims.

How quickly we forget the recent past, that scene from before when Jorgen tucked into bed with a roaring fairytale his and Helene’s school-aged twins, how, not caring, he catapulted into the bathtub fully clothed, how he helped his live-in mother navigate the Internet.

One look and a story we thought was about a mysterious do-gooder becomes a story about a man we must assume is up to no good. Teeth to fingernails, we brace for the worst, perhaps the ruination of the orphanage, perhaps a gun pressed to the back of Jacob’s head.

“After the Wedding” is a film about assumptions, about how limited knowledge leads to conjecture, how ignorance feeds and fattens situational clich├ęs. We are too quick to concede the human tendency to impair, too slow to accept our capacity to safeguard and defend.

What is true of us is true of Bier’s characters on screen. Both Helene and Jacob wait, nervously, for an axe to fall, but under this foreboding shadow, rather than wither, wildflowers sprout. Heartbroken after her new husband’s infidelities surface, Anna finds a confidante in Jacob. Helene, who has kept Anna’s existence from him all these years, makes restitution, as does Jacob for the inconstancy and addiction that marred his previous life.

The film’s fluctuating dynamics are shouldered by a stellar cast, the helmsman of which is Rolf Lassgard, who plays dapper, paunchy Jorgen with preternatural poise until the plot calls for vulnerability and despair, at which point he cracks with the severe grandeur of a Roman statue.

Add “After the Wedding” to that canon of satisfying stories about the fallibility of first impressions and the clarity that comes from a second, a third.

 

Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.

 

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