Film Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

April 3, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives exists in that all too rare world of pure cinema: A place where images and their associative relationship, through editing and even pacing, or how long the camera lingers on a vision, invites deeper meanings. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an expert at this. The Thai director has shown more maturity with every film, and Uncle Boonmee continues this growth.

Weerasethakul’s films have always been meditative. He allows scenes and images to breath with much patience, opening the audience to informed personal breakthroughs. His films are a guide to the experience the viewer brings to the cinema screen, as the projected image, I have always believed, is best appreciated as a mirror of sorts. It seems Weerasethakul feels the same way. In his 2004 movie Tropical Malady (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com) he has the main actor stare and flirt with the audience during the opening credits. In the commentary of that DVD, he says this is in order to invite the audience into the movie.

As great and typical a Weerasethakulian experience that is Tropical Malady, the director had several movies to grow from there. Compared to Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady is ham-fisted. Boonmee shows a much greater trust in the audience. The camera lingers much less, and Weerasethakul’s lens has grown more focused. All the while the director leaves those entrancing spaces that invite the audience to inform the images.

Thanapat Saisaymar plays Boonmee, a farmer in his last days due to kidney failure. Though his days are numbered, this sets him up with a unique opportunity to reflect on not only his current life, but the cycle of lives that informs this old soul. You know he is near death when the ghost of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears at the dining room table as Boonmee eats with his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). Huay has been dead 19 years, and Boonmee has not seen her since. As the film goes by, and he gets closer to death, she becomes more solid and explains to him “Ghosts aren’t attached to places but to people.”

The wonderful monkey wrench in all this is the fact that Tong and Jen also respond to her presence and interact with her as plainly as another flesh and blood person in their presence, though they do refer to her as a ghost.  Weerasethakul is not offering a fever dream of a character approaching the abyss. This is a film about transcendence.

Complicating matters even more at the dinner place is a second, even stranger apparition. Boonmee’s long-lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), has returned from the jungle that surrounds the farm in the form of a creature not too different from the mythic Sasquatch but with glowing red eyes.

He emerges out of the shadows from the stairs leading up to the dining table. A scene that Weerasethakul could have played for cheap fright is instead offered with incongruous mystery, giving a sensation of surrealism instead of terror. It feels like a scene from a David Lynch movie if Lynch had a lighter heart.

The creature soon introduces himself, and tells a tale of how he slipped away from civilization to become one with nature. As Boonsong tells his story, Weerasethakul plays with something he has also grown more crafty with over the years: sound design. He augments Boonsong’s story with an odd throbbing noise, not too different from the sound one might hear when covering the ears to only hearing the echoing of their own heartbeat. It’s a sonic theme that recurs a few more times in the movie signaling moments of transcendence in the story, and it again recalls Lynch who also uses sound in unsettling and oblique ways in his films.

Boonmee certainly feels like a transcendental experience, and it is thanks to the deliberate and daring pace of the film, not to mention Weerasethakul’s inclination to defy real world rules. He does this simply. In what seems like arbitrary images, he captures the everyday with more power than mainstream movies, which prefer to shove narrative and conflicts and character types down the viewer’s throat.

Like a great painting or a great song, his film defies written description. His movies exist in and of themselves. They are meant to be experienced. They activate the mind on a near subconscious level.

Watching his films allows for an entrancing experience, should one invite the film in through the eyes and not over-think what one might perceive to be Weerasethakul’s intentions. Recalling one of his movie’s is like remembering a vivid dream, and the best cinema is indeed dreamlike. Dreams are said to be the symbolic interpretations of the life you lead, and like a dream, this movie invites the viewer to fill the amorphous spaces with their own experiences. This is a gift beyond measure. Walking out of the movie house after a film like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is like waking from a deep trance and experiencing the world with supreme awareness.

It’s great to see this Palme d’Or winner from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival finally made it to Miami thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Catch it tonight or tomorrow or Tuesday night. Those are the only chances you will have to see this masterpiece.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens tonight and plays through Apr. 5 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

6 Responses to “Film Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

  1. Ana Says:

    Pure cinema… sounds like I need to see it! Thanks for the review, so many people tell you a plot, but this is a true review.

  2. Florentina Says:

    I finally was able to see Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and read your intriguing review. Indeed it was a special experience. Because of its fluidity it does resemble the experience of dreams and meditation. I see you are comparing it to the David Lynch’s style. I found it to be very close to the world of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Both Tarkovsky and Lynch are dealing with themes exemplifying an intersection between the Real and the Symbolic. While Lynch shows this intersection as violent, the Real will always tear up the fabric of the world we live in as it is too strong to be experienced for both the heroes as well as the viewers, Tarkovsky renders this intersection natural, there are stains of the Real everywhere. If one looks close enough one sees it in all the elements around.

    Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’s experience was so close to viewing Stalker. I found a common overarching theme of fluidity, of opening barriers between worlds, between past and present, life and death, human and animal, consciousness and unconscious, everyday and miraculous. This creates an uncontrollable desire to be part of the flow of energy. If you remember in Stalker the hero lies on the ground with his face close to the much present water, as an attempt to melt into it almost. The sensuous fluidity allures one into it. In this sense Boonme cannot resist going into his wife’s arms, Boonme’s son catches sight of a strange creature with which he mates taking its form, the princess leaves his young lover and worldly possessions to join the spirit of the water, while at the end of the film Tong and Jen are able to experience simultaneously two separate realities.

    I loved the image of the dark creatures in the forest. Saw them as that unknown and powerful side of all of us that in this film confronts the viewer – stares back – sort of from within.

    Viewing this one was a true delight. Thank you Independent Ethos for bringing my attention it.

    • indieethos Says:

      I’m glad you saw it! Isn’t that the wonderful thing about cinema that tries to express the allegorical? This film certainly stimulates interpretation in such a healthy way that so many films and Hollywood do it. I see you bring both Lacan and Jung into this. This man’s cinema is bound to be revisited for years to come. I hope you seek out his other movies via the link above. I know you won’t be let down!

  3. RP Sugg Says:

    I saw the film last night, and then read and admired the review by Hans Morgenstern–how many reviews can make me put my hands over my ears to hear the sound of my own heart beating! I also was helped by the review’s account of the relationships in the film, which I had not focused on enough. What someone might address is the significance of the Viet Nam War allusions–which surely were part of the reason this film was a Palme D’Or winner. Finally, thanks to the Intro to last night’s showing by the Director of the Miami Beach Cinemateque–in its new and much upgraded digs next to the Police Station; he called the film Buddhist, and maybe that explains ghosts, past lives, etc. Also, during the film I was reminded of another famous Asian “ghost” film–Ugetsu.

    • indieethos Says:

      All right! Glad you made it too, professor. As a matter of fact, a friend of mine who also went to the screening felt the Vietnam vibe, noting the significance of the red glowing eyes of the monkey ghosts. I am sure there is a lot of guilt in there by the Buddhist Thai society. But the Palm d’Or came from mostly western Hollywood industry types. Tim Burton was the chair of that year’s jury, notably. I have been planning to see Ugetsu for the longest time. I have it on DVD. I must get around to it.


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