Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (screenplay)
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, and Natthakarn Aphaiwonk
Tremors of shock reverberated through the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 when Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, an experimental Thai film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, took home the Palme D’or, the biggest prize at the festival. It is the very definition of a risky choice, and it makes most “risk taking” independent films seem tame by comparison. Any outrage that was to be had came from the fact that it stars no one even remotely famous and that it comes with no way to market it to any sort of audience.
Despite that, a jury led by Tim Burton awarded Weerasethakul’s haunted and haunting film one of the biggest prizes in the film industry. It is gorgeously shot in a remote cabin in Thailand where a dying man named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) begins seeing ghosts and then starts to travel to lives he already lived. This movie assumes you are familiar with the concept of reincarnation as it applies to Buddhism, and thankfully does away with tedious explanation.
Uncle Boonmee unfolds before your eyes with no road map, but it’s also fairly easy to find your way through it. It’s not hard to understand, just very weird. Boonmee is surrounded by family, both alive and dead. In an early scene, the ghost of his wife appears at the dinner table. The living do not jump back in horror or try to scare her off. This world operates under the assumption that there are ghosts wandering around. Later, it is explained that they are tied to people, not places.
Boonmee’s son, who had disappeared years ago, also appears at that dinner table. He was swept up by Ghost Monkeys, scary looking but ultimately harmless creatures that lurk in the dark with their beady red eyes. He fell in love with one, and when they mated he became one. Like I said, not hard to understand… just weird.
The actors all give very quiet performances, and as a result none of them really stand out with a great one. It’s an effective ensemble, but there are no loud emotional outbursts like there would be in many other films about a dying man. Like the director, the characters prefer to contemplate.
The movie is most successful when it operates in the present time. Boonmee’s colliding worlds and lives are better served visiting him than being visited in their own time period. The latter isn’t a bad thing, just not as effective.
There is a point when he flashes back to a princess being carried through a lush jungle not unlike the one by his house. She wanders through the forest to a beautifully serene pond with a waterfall. A large catfish talks to her from the water, and then the two make love. It isn’t clear if Boonmee is the princess, or the catfish. He could be both. The point is, this sequence, however mesmerizing, is also a bit disengaging because it is so separate from the rest of the film.
That being said, Weerasethakul obviously had a very specific vision for his movie, and the pacing is brilliant at times. It is a very effective tone poem, and a movie where the setting stands still and the characters are merely passing through. Boonmee is on his deathbed contemplating his life (or lives), so the only major conflict is internal.
A common theory about death is that your life flashes before your eyes as it happens. What Weerasethakul has done is made the Buddhist version of that idea. Your ability to enjoy this movie lies in your ability to accept that nothing will be explained to you and that the bizarre can and often will appear at any moment. Uncle Boonmee is refreshing in that Weerasethakul is completely comfortable taking risks that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare to.
In his Syndromes and a Century, Weerasethakul explored the way a situation would change if it took place in two different time periods. That movie also largely depended on its environment for its success. The lush, grayish blue tint of the night forest in Uncle Boonmee lends a key element of the supernatural. Unlike that other film, it transports you out of reality, to a place where dreams transcend death.