‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’

[Editor’s note: We republish this snapshot with permission from Fireflies Issue #1 as they announce their new issue and call for submissions.]

It’s night. Boonmee, Jen and Tong are having dinner on a veranda that gives on to the jungle. The murmur of crickets emanates from the vast, pregnant darkness. The scene’s tranquillity is otherworldly.

Then the ghost of a woman materializes at the table. This doesn’t come as a shock; the characters don’t even notice her immediately. I’d been listening to their conversation and only saw her a split second before they did. I wish I’d paid attention to the whole frame; how long has she been there?

It’s the ghost of Boonmee’s wife, also Jen’s sister. Boonmee casually enquires how she’s been in the afterlife. While they talk the camera holds Jen in a long close-up, her face growing vacant as she’s overcome by melancholy. Boonmee, who suffers from a terminal kidney condition, asks his wife if she’s come to take him away. “Don’t say things like that,” interjects Jen. Her sister’s apparition after a nineteen-year absence she can accept; the thought of her brother-in-law’s imminent death is too much to bear.


‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’

Then Boonmee’s son, disappeared thirteen years earlier, walks in. He too is a ghost, but a “monkey ghost,” i.e., a man-sized, upright monkey with glowing red eyes. The group is only slightly more taken aback by this, mainly because they don’t recognize him under all that fur. He says he’s come because the forest spirits told him of Boonmee’s illness.

As her nephew proceeds to explain his transformation (he mated with another monkey ghost), Jen excuses herself and goes to sit at the end of the veranda. She doesn’t make a scene, she doesn’t say a word. She just takes a few moments facing the jungle and then turns to watch the others. Her composed expression can’t conceal her sorrow, just as the scene’s fantastic/comic elements don’t conceal its underlying pathos. No overacting, no weepy music, no camera movement–the crickets sing and an aging woman looks back at the people that once filled her life, knowing that soon she will be alone.

From Fireflies Issue #1, which explores the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

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