Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, opens with a still portrait: a long mid-shot of a water buffalo tied to a tree somewhere in the Thai countryside. Shot in twilight, the dark greens of the jungle blend seamlessly with the brown of the buffalo’s hide. While the opening shot is not literally a still, it has far more in common with a photograph than a film clip: the deliberate, compositional use of color and light; the careful, static position of the buffalo on the right side of the frame. After a few minutes, the buffalo pulls on its lead and breaks loose, wandering into the jungle. The camera fixes on a particular patch of the jungle, as the buffalo wanders into the frame. Eventually, the buffalo’s owner comes to collect the buffalo and coaxes it back into the field. The actors in the minor drama leave the frame, but the camera remains. In the upper left, a mysterious silhouette gradually appears, as if it were an object in a dark room that only gets noticed once one’s eyes adjust to the dark. The silhouette is anthropoid but not human; it is the same color, in the low light, as the water buffalo, but with glowing red eyes that resemble a photographic red-eye effect. Is it a trick of the eyes? Had it always been there, camouflaged by the foliage? Were we too distracted by the water buffalo to notice? Only when enough time has passed for the viewers to begin to fathom the image do the credits finally drop.
Uncle Boonmee, strangely enough for a film, is more concerned with still photography than narrative. The redeye of the silhouette (which we later find out is a monkey ghost) is the first in a series of references to photography. Uncle Boonmee’s son, a photography hobbyist, first discovers the monkey ghosts as a blur in the corner of a photograph he develops. Not only does that scene explicitly reference photography, but it is also a direct quotation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a film similarly concerned with photography, where the protagonist discovers a body in one of his photographs in the exact same fashion. An odd section in the middle of the film is told only through a series of still photographs of members of the Thai military posing with a captured monkey ghost (not some CGI fantasia, but a man in a monkey suit). And while Uncle Boonmee is filled with surreal, fantastic imagery created through special effects, all of these effects look low-tech. The distorted reflection of a woman in a pond is achieved through editing that would have been familiar to Lang or Eisenberg. The ethereal appearance of the ghost of Uncle Boonmee’s dead wife seems to have been achieved through the old photography trick of double exposure. There are ghosts everywhere you look in Uncle Boonmee, and they are not filmed but photographed. The photograph becomes a tool to bring the dead to life.
This formula inverts Roland Barthes’ interpretation of the photograph. For Barthes, the photograph condemned even the image of the living to a static past:
For the photograph’s immobility is the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object is real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value, but by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.
Barthes compares the photograph—in its flatness, its lack of animation, its temporal fixity and yet, its verisimilitude—to a corpse. The corpse is a true testament to life, but unmistakably of life that has now passed; the link between the corpse and the living person is illusory, although unmistakably profound for those who knew him. Barthes is writing, significantly, about a photograph of his late mother, about someone living and real who has passed on.
Weerasethakul, on the other hand, by photographing ghosts, is referencing another tradition: spirit photography. It was a relatively common practice in the 1860s and ’70s (concurrent with the heyday of the Spiritualist movement) to use the technique of multiple exposure to create the illusion of a dead relative posing with a family, or of ghosts or of “ectoplasm,” the substance of spirit. Many of these photographers were outright frauds. The originator of the practice, William Mumler, was a complete charlatan, whose career ended in a spectacular fraud trial that included such high profile figures as P.T. Barnum testifying against him. Typically, histories of photography have portrayed this period as a tragedy that disgraced the tradition of photography and have dismissed all spirit photographs as nothing more than simple hoaxes.
This rejection of spirit photography is unfortunate, for while many of the spirit photographers were con-men, others had far more ambiguous intentions. Some were plainly artists who used the unique verification ability of photography that Barthes identifies to create photographs that are no less uncanny for being clearly manipulated. More intriguingly, some of these photographers were committed spiritualists who believed that they were capturing ectoplasm or thought or spirit on film, or, at the very least, that although a particular photograph might have been a fraud, it was a fraud that reflected the truth of a spirit world. Even the poor mourners who sat for Mumler must have been slightly complicit in their own fraud: to believe that the fuzzy, anthropoid outlines that stood next to them in the frame were the ghosts of their dead relatives required an exceptional leap of faith. Spirit photographers and their subjects must have occupied an intermediate position between fraud and true belief: they had to have known, on some level, that the photos were illusions, but they believed that the photos were illusions that represented the truth—that is, that the dead live on.
By assuming the position of spirit photographer, Weerasethakul transcends the dichotomy between representation and represented, between past and present, and between real and illusion that Barthes sets up in his interpretation of the phenomenon of the photograph. The “real” objects represented in Uncle Boonmee are no more real in the film than the ghosts and spirits, since both comfortably coexist on film. As a result, reality loses the priority and eternal quality that Barthes describes. The ghosts of the past are as tangible to us as the people of the present; they are all part of an ever-present moment, or more precisely, of a unity that transcends time. In Uncle Boonmee, the dead literally sit down to dine with the living: Boonmee’s son (who became a monkey ghost) and Boonmee’s dead wife do not haunt the present as unholy intrusions or frauds, but readily join in the quotidian life of Boonmee’s convalescence. Similarly, Uncle Boonmee’s Past Lives does not need to identify which lives are past—because none of them is properly past.
To be fair to Barthes, he was quite aware that his interpretation of the photograph was limited to the West. Barthes’ anxiety over the copy, the dichotomy he draws between art and the real, is easily traced back to Plato’s anxieties over sophistry. But this dichotomy is not Weerasethakul’s. Uncle Boonmee is a deeply Buddhist film, and the confusion of the real and the unreal is reflective of Buddhist ontology. The Buddha observed that all phenomena in the conceivable, sensible world (in Buddhist terminology, the world of samsara) are subject to decay and emerges from another phenomenon. Nothing tangible lasts and everything is ultimately the product of something else, or defined with respect to something else. From that basic observation, the Buddha concluded that nothing has an eternal, unchangeable essence, and that all conceptions and perceptions are ultimately relative. The Chinese Huayan school used the metaphor of Indra’s net to illustrate this principle:
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
If you examine any single node of Indra’s net, there is no specific content or essence to the jewel: it only reflects every other jewel. The “illusion” of the images of the other jewels constitute the perceived essence of the jewel. Similarly, the Buddhists argue, what we perceive to be the essence of phenomena is only the product of conceptions and perceptions that come from outside that phenomena. Even our own consciousness is shaped only by what we perceive; we think in terms of what we sense and what we know, there is no transcendental logos. In Uncle Boonmee, photography is Indra’s net, a metaphor that serves to illustrate this principle. By using the unique verification abilities of photography to make the unreal real, Weerasethakul demonstrates the relativity and subjectivity of perceived reality. If the ghosts we see in Uncle Boonmee look as real to us as the living, if all reality is composed of manipulable images, it is difficult to believe that we have the capacity to discern an ultimate, non-contextual reality in our ordinary life. In fact, it becomes more likely that the opposite is true: that all we know to be real is actually artifice.
In the final fifteen minutes of Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul manages to extend his radical interpretation of photography even to the internet. Critical views of the internet (nicely summarized in this essay by Adam Gopnik) tend to be analogous to the dichotomies of photography criticism: either the internet poses a threat to natural human functioning (i.e. it is an unnatural way of being that threatens and contaminates) or it positively fulfills human potential (i.e. it completes the real, it is the “this-has-been” of society, the curious paradox of “the global village”). But just as he does with photography, Weerasethakul prefers to resolve the contradiction. In a scene early in the film, Uncle Boonmee tries to convince his sister-in-law to take over the family farm once he dies. She counters that she could never live in the country: she’s a big city girl, she’d miss Bangkok too much. Uncle Boonmee replies, “There’s a monastery fifteen minutes from here, go there to meditate and you can transport yourself to anywhere in the world that you’d like to visit.”
Initially, after a scene full of dead relatives and monkey ghosts, it seems that Boonmee means this remark sincerely. Later in the film, it seems that Uncle Boonmee’s comment was probably tongue-in-cheek: Boonmee’s nephew, who joins the monastery, comments on how all the monks are constantly on the internet, skyping and chatting with people across the globe. But in the final fifteen minutes, Uncle Boonmee suggests that both possibilities are true. Boonmee’s sister-in-law, nephew and niece sit on the bed of a hotel, watching TV. As they are sitting down, exact doubles of them get off the bed, walk to the hotel bar, and sit for dinner. The scene seems to be a very blunt metaphor for telepresence: the screen of television, and modern technology as a whole, allows the characters to be in two places at once. But the fantastic imagery also suggests the saintly quality of bilocation: an enlightened man who understands the illusion of the world sees no contradiction in being in two places at once. The possibility offered by technology is identical to the transcendent result of Buddhist contemplation.
In Uncle Boonmee, modern technologies neither pose a threat to a stable reality nor do they advance a reality in the state of becoming. This new world created by screens is one of specters, marked by a tangible unreality. In past ages, the new modes of existence offered by the internet seemed beyond the limits of ordinary human beings; the new technologies do not adjust our notions of reality, but instead confront and subvert them. As our sense of stable reality is rapidly upset, we are freed to embrace a world that has become superhuman and fantastic. The difficulty of coming to terms with a strange, new world is not new. Instead, the challenge posed to us by the internet is the eternal, familiar challenge of an existence that is perpetually in flux and of a universe of a complexity that will always far exceed our ability to comprehend. The great beauty of Uncle Boonmee is the recognition that the questions that face us today are the questions that has always been before us: if nothing lasts, how we can best live while we remain, and how we can best leave when we must.