Monday, May 2, 2011
"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"--A Film Review
The 2010 Cannes Film Festival Palme D'Or winner is an unusual, hypnotic piece of work by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he is known as Joe to his friends in the States). Since its Cannes victory, and release in limited venues here, the film has had a widely divisive reception. Some have dismissed it as pretentious tripe; others have spoken in awe of its mystical hold on the viewer.
I am definitely in the latter camp. I loved this film, and it continues to grow on me, to the point where I am beginning to see its sly humor amid it's enigmatic long takes and deceptively simple narrative flow. "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His past Lives" unfolds like a picture book of the Asian countryside for philosophers and mystics.
It is unlike most other film-viewing experiences I have had. While it masterfully uses the tools and grammar of film, it defies expectations, and explanations. It resists a conventional review.
At the center of the film is Boonmee, who lives on a tamarind farm and is dying of kidney failure. His sister-in-law Auntie Jen, and his nephew Tong, travel to the country home to care for him. During their stay, they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee's long-deceased wife, and his dead son, who appears in the form of a monkey-like creature with glowing red eyes. There is a pervading casual acceptance of death and rebirth in the film, back and forth in time, and even between species. One must take this in stride to fully appreciate and enjoy the oddities that occur.
Concepts like heaven are mentioned and dismissed; Boonmee's ghost-wife tells him that heaven is overrated; that it is empty, and that ghosts attach themselves to people, not places. This is comforting to Boonmee. His son, who has evolved somehow after mating with ape-like creatures, speaks in a chilling hushed voice of reason.
Boonmee is preparing for his death and relates stories of varying ghostliness, effecting sudden shifts of time and tone to, presumably, recount his previous incarnations. He dies, and the surviving characters end up in disturbingly modern surroundings, far removed from their nature and other-selves---or are they?
Seemingly unrelated segments such as a restless water buffalo at night, a pack of creepy but benign hairy beings with the red-laser eyes moving through the jungle, and a talking catfish restoring an ugly princess to beauty while exacting his payment between her legs---yes, a startling and funny sequence--can all be assumed to be the meditative and ghostly dreams of Boonmee's past.
The movie, while shot beautifully on 16mm film, is often dark, and shots are held for such length that some viewers may become impatient, even hostile. But casual viewers with conventional expectations may not be drawn to this anyway. It is meditative in a true sense. This movie is sort of like a pure act of meditation, the static shots allowing a viewer to finally empty one's mind to engage in the process, and open ones senses to the poetry of the images, rather than a rational explanation of them.
At a point where a character is resting on a hammock, drifting as the lush green trees rustle before him, I felt as relaxed as I have ever been, entranced, and exhilarated too, ready for anything. I welcomed the slow pace and the unusual narrative movement. At times, I almost drifted into a dreamlike state, helped along by a soundtrack overflowing with the incessant sounds of the buzzing of insects.
Water is an important motif here, and every time it appeared, as a lake, stream, or cave-pond, I took it as a clue that another incarnation was about to occur. A remarkable sequence has Boonmee, Auntie Jen and Tong exploring a cave with a triangular opening. Even before it is mentioned as such, the film prepared me to accept this as a womb-symbol, festooned with twinkling jewels on the walls, where they find a pond filled with small blind fish. Boonmee has finally regressed as far as he can.
In an uncanny way, I was reminded here of "2001: A Space Odyssey": whereas 2001 explored the mysteries of the infinite, "Uncle Boonmee...: examined the wonders of the infinitesimal.
Toward the end, Tong is a Monk-in-training, presiding over Boonmee's funeral in a garish temple with twinkling multicolored lights. Boonmee's sister-in-law and her daughter are in a nearby hotel room. Tong joins them amid the sounds of ringing cell-phones, television, and talk of 7-11 and other modern banalities. After a shower (water again) Tong and Auntie Jen leave for a meal....in what appears to be a strange, out-of-body experience. Is this Boonmee's next life?
At the end, as these characters who seemed to exist in a natural state of mystery and grace, are stranded in a sterile modern existence, the effect was jarring, and painful. These last ten minutes told me that Director Joe knew what he was after, and the point was well-made.
POSTSCRIPT: After I saw this movie I wanted to know more about the director and his work. There's a good piece on Wikipedia (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) that some of you may want to check out.
The piece deepened my appreciation for the film. I learned that Weerasethakul made this film as part of a three-part artistic exploration of a region in Thailand. I also learned that he shot six segments, each in a different style that sought to replicate typical Thai popular film and art. The red-eyed creatures used to appear in cheaply-made but iconic fantasy movies, in which the creatures' eyes were made red so they could be seen amid the wretched special effects of those films. It's a film about death, and transformation. By shooting on actual film, a practice which is dying out in favor of digital video, Weerasethakul was heralding the death of film, as well.
Enjoy the trailer! I challenge readers to check out this unusual film and to open up to a new way of seeing. I will look forward to your comments!