December 27, 2012

How to film ghosts

Ghosts will appear under certain conditions, when it is not quite dark and not quite light (at the break of dawn and twilight).
At first the dead don’t realise they are dead. When they pinch themselves, it still hurts. They think they still have their own bodies. But it’s just an illusion; all in the mind. They walk around talking normally to people but no one takes any notice, no one can see or hear them.
Haunting isn’t the right word. The ghosts in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives don’t haunt. They are attached to people, not places, and not all are visible. But still, there is an assumption that the world is full of invisible beings who occasionally become visible (dawn and twilight). Unseen ghosts are still ghosts. When they appear, you might be startled for a moment – such as the first appearance in Uncle Boonmee of Huay’s ghost at the dinner table (above) as she gradually becomes more solid – but your belief in what is real and not real will not be tested. Generally, in films made in the west, ghosts are in two categories: the terror of The Innocents/The Others/The Shining or the romantic attachment of a loved one that continues to guide you from beyond his or her death (Ghost, obviously). The ghosts in Uncle Boonmee are neither of those. They are not reassuring, but nor are they terrifying. They have nothing much to say. The afterlife, a ghost says, is boring. They are no help to the living or the dead. Unlike, say, The Innocents or Ghost, these ghosts aren’t out to prove to anyone that they exist. The space between life and death is more porous than in the Christian/post-Christian west. They are taken for granted.

There are Buddhist values and Thai folklore in Uncle Boonmee. There are the laws of karma. There are monkey ghosts – human-sized, shaggy beings with bright red eyes that live in forests. On one hand, Uncle Boonmee comes to the west as something exotic, dreamlike and metaphysical, and more persuasive and profound a mix of folklore and localised story than, say, Beasts of the Southern Wild, told in European art-cinema language (generally post-Antonioni: long takes, limited camera movements, emphasis on space). It won the Palme d’or in 2010 – Tim Burton was head of the jury and called it “a beautiful strange dream”– and then it got a limited New Zealand Film Festival showing but didn’t get as far as the South Island, from memory (I’ve reviewed it off the UK blu-ray release). Critics were mostly respectful but audiences were divided and this review from student magazine Salient seems typical of the idiotic responses (“The result is a long, boring movie”). Or maybe it’s a parody of the idiotic responses.

Weerasethakul was inspired by a book by a Buddhist monk from Thailand’s north-east who could recall his past lives. In the story, Boonmee is dying and his sister and cousin come to stay at his farm. Huay was Boonmee’s wife. His son appears too. Lives are recalled. But there is more to it than that. The film is also concerned with Weerasethakul’s own memories and perceptions of time (in an interview on the blu-ray, he says that Boonmee is dying in the same way his own father died), and the way that films can play tricks with time. When the future is talked about, the film suddenly becomes a series of stills with a voice-over, in the style of La Jetee. In those stills, soldiers pose with what seems to be a captured monkey ghost in an obvious movie costume.

Everywhere we went there were stories. Helicopters shot down here, friends shot there, beheadings happened here.
The same soldiers appear in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, a short film that is included on the blu-ray. It tells you that the feature, Uncle Boonmee, is just one part of a larger project concerned with the recent history of Thailand’s north-east, near the border with Laos. There is a brief but crucial reference to this history in Uncle Boonmee, when the title character wonders if his disease was caused by his karma, from his part in the killing of communist sympathisers. The history is more explicit in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. Weerasethakul’s own writing about the project, some of which is also included in the blu-ray, is even more detailed about his research trips to Thailand’s north-east and the Thai government’s opposition to local communist insurgency from the 1960s to the 1980s (that writing is also the source of the quotes in this blog). Who or what are the ghosts? A ghost is always just an absence. In Uncle Boonmee, Boonmee’s sister explains why she is unwilling to take over the farm: she would be surrounded by the farm’s “ghosts and migrant workers”. They occupy the same level. Migrant workers are normally invisible too, just like the villagers from remote parts of the country who disappeared in the 1960s. This wider context isn’t vital for an appreciation of Uncle Boonmee but it deepens the experience.