The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul first came to prominence in the West with a pair of shapeshifting eco-fables that were utterly unlike anything else around, and as lyrical as the filmmaker's multisyllabic nomenclature. 2004's Tropical Malady began as a gay forest romance, then morphed into something else entirely, to beguiling effect; 2006's Syndromes and a Century, which I must confess I didn't see, baffled and stimulated those who did in equal measure. Now we have Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which stands as a summation of Weerasethakul's career thus far - and took home the Palme d'Or from this year's Cannes festival. In Weerasethakul's hands, that gong may well have warped en route back to Nabua into a golden monkey or tiger - but it was nothing if not wholly deserved.
The gentle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), ailing with terminal kidney problems, is visited at his farmland retreat by his sister-in-law and her twentysomething offspring; the guests settle in while their host undergoes dialysis and makes plans for his eventual death. One night at dinner, the need to set extra places for dinner becomes evident, when the ghost of Boonmee's late wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) suddenly materialises out of nowhere: a jolting sequence apparently realised using not CGI, but old-fashioned movie trickery. Even more joltingly, moments later there appears the spirit of Boonmee's dead son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who just so happens to have come back in hulking, hairy simian form.
Oddly enough, no-one runs screaming from the room, and conversation around the table continues in much the same measured vein - and this isn't even the half of it: just wait until you see the casually brilliant mid-film interlude - cued by a dream Boonmee is having, stretched out in a hammock - in which a princess mates with a talking catfish beneath a foaming waterfall, a sequence at once reminiscent of Elizabeth Berkley's slitherings atop Kyle MacLachlan in the swimming pool in Showgirls, and quite the most uncannily beautiful stretch of cinema you're likely to see all year. Frankly, dear reader, there are more things in this film than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
The mystic, animist streak clearly marks Uncle Boonmee... as Far Eastern, but it nonetheless casts its spell wide, and stretches its tendrils in every which direction. Not all the film's interlopers are supernatural: Weerasethakul's direction settles into near-documentary rhythms whenever it settles upon the Laotian migrants who've arrived to work on Boonmee's farm, and indeed the farmer seems quite haunted enough already by his participation in an earlier conflict between the two nations - the ghosts following him around here are more psychic than visible.
Yet playing out to a soundtrack of gently chirruping insects, the midsection provides a soothing, contemplative portrait of one man's rural idyll: as Boonmee asks of his (human) visitors, "Why would you want to return to that cramped apartment in that city from hell?" Boonmee... is thus fantasy in more than one sense - the final sequence, which seeks to preserve rather than dispel the film's many mysteries, shifts us forward into a contemporary urban environment that appears hopelessly sterile and lifeless when set against what's gone before, prompting the characters into a marvellously shot and edited out-of-body experience. (It's too ambiguous for one to be entirely certain, but Weerasethakul may well be making a point about the general disconnection of city-dwellers from their surrounds.)
Though it draws the majority of its effects from the natural world - shooting at a particular hour of the day or night, staring intently at tangled vines or enigmatic rock formations - Uncle Boonmee... is a rare arthouse movie to deserve plaudits for its make-up and design: the cowled, jet-black, red-eyed monkey ghosts [see photo above] are the spookiest creations to have been observed on screen for many a year - and oddly credible in their behaviour, too, distinct from the Wolf Men/Chewbacca clones you half-expect them to be, and in fact (like the film itself) probably only one quantum leap or two away from the apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet Weerasethakul has branched out (the forest floor imagery is deliberate) into video installation art in the past few years, and he's grown exquisitely attuned to the elements of light, climate and time, his camera able now to suggest whole worlds and dimensions both within and beyond a crop of jungle foliage or a placid rockpool.
Throughout Uncle Boonmee..., there is the thrilling sense of a filmmaker striving to put real, appreciable art back into the cinema, which may explain why that Palme d'Or sits so comfortably upon its shoulders. Yet it can also be approached and interpreted as so much more besides: a ghost story, a love story, a fairytale for grown-ups; a more honestly Buddhist film than Gaspar Noe's showy and self-involved Enter the Void; and in itself a statement of eye-opening faith in the power of the moving image as projected onto a blank wall. It is, finally, an event: a communion, a transformation, a gorgeous, glorious transmigration of souls. If you still believe in, or have ever had cause to doubt, the cinema's capacity for magic and wonder, you need to see this.
Uncle Boonmee... opens in selected cinemas tomorrow. An edited version of this review was published in Friday's Metro.