One of my favorite movie-going experiences in the last several years was a 2007 LA Film Festival screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. I’d never seen a Weerasethakul picture before, I had no real idea what to expect and I don’t even remember what compelled me to buy a ticket, but it was one of those strange, transcendent movie-going experiences that don’t happen along very often. I didn’t quite now how to describe it then and I don’t know how to describe it now. The movie just is and it gets under your skin or it doesn’t. His latest, the Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is much the same (it even has a Buddhist monk), though for me it didn’t quite approach the same level of inscrutable magic.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a farmer who is dying of kidney failure. As his friends and family gather to care for him, the lines between past and present, real and unreal begin to blur. The ghosts of his dead wife and missing son appear – the latter in the form of a monkey ghost with glowing red eyes. It’s as if, opening the door to death, Boonmee’s illness has temporarily connected life and afterlife and the inhabitants of both worlds are free to cross back and forth.

Among these inhabitants are apparently some of Boonmee’s previous incarnations including a cow and either a princess or a catfish. Weerasethakul never offers an explanation for the sometimes bizarre tangents his narrative takes as Boonmee’s literal journey through the forest ultimately leads to his figurative end in a cave. The inexplicitness of it all and Weerasethakul’s unassertive filmmaking (the camera is content to quietly watch whatever happens to be unfolding on screen or even occasionally drift off from the main action to gaze at something else) add to the sense of mystery. There’s a kind of through-line, a fragment of logic that pulls you through the almost fairytale narrative, but it’s elusive  – or possibly illusive and when you look back after it’s all over you wonder if it was ever really there at all.

Such is the magic of Weerasethakul. With his digressions, matter of fact acceptance of the bizarre or supernatural, peaceful embrace of nature (the sounds of bugs and birds and various forest creatures fill the soundtrack for much of the film), curveball bursts of gentle deadpan humor and disregard for the strictures of a concrete narrative, he sets the stage for a kind of meditative state if you’re willing. Patience is the key as Uncle Boonmee certainly take its time on a journey where the endpoint is never clear and ultimately leaves more questions than answers. Some will find it narcotizingly slow, but those who are engaged will find it placidly hypnotic. It’s as if Weerasethakul is trying to break down the resistance of his audience and open the door between two worlds in the same way he has for his characters. It’s becomes a rumination on the continuum of life and death at a point where both are the same.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand / Spain / Germany / UK / France 2010) (US Release 2011) Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cinematography by Yukontorn Mingmongkon, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and Charin Pengpanich. Edited by Lee Chatametikool. Starring Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbaudee, Nattakarn Aphaiwonk and Geerasak Kulhong. 1 hour 53 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)

 

4 Responses to “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)”

  1. I loved this one. Yeah, it’s not quite on the level of SYNDROMES, but what is? SYNDROMES was my first exposure to Weerasethakul as well, and I was blown away by its hypnotic beauty.

    UNCLE BOONMEE is beautiful too, though, and also strangely funny – I never expected to be laughing this much, but the catfish scene had me bursting out with surprised delight. And also deeply political, as Weerasethakul engages with border politics and the horrors of war, as personal and political histories blend together. The film’s sometimes jarring shifts of tone and digressions can be explained, as well, by Weerasethakul’s engagement with cinematic history, as he interpolates the style of Thai costume dramas and horror/sci-fi movies, as well as numerous references to his own previous films. It’s a very dense film despite its seemingly languid rhythms, and that complexity, those multiple layers of meaning, are what Weerasethakul really special to me.

  2. Thanks for stopping by to comment Ed.

    I shouldn’t have opened my review with a little disappointment because it really is a terrific film and honestly probably would’ve benefited from a 2nd viewing before I wrote it up. Expectations are a bitch and I went in with a lot of them. I think the 2nd time around I’ll be better able to just let the film live and breathe on its own the way it deserves.

    I read a review where he was talking about his influences, particularly early Thai horror and it makes me wonder what other levels I could more easily appreciate if I was more familiar with where he’s coming from.

    At the same time, I like the mystery of it. As I said above it has a way of breaking down your defenses and getting you to feel and experience rather than intellectualize.

    Somehow I was expecting the humor since there was quite a bit of it in Syndromes too. Not as overt as the scene you mention for example, but there’s definitely a twinkle in Weerasethakul’s eye.

  3. This was my first exposure to Weerasethakul and I thought it was a near masterpiece.

    You have me very interested in Syndromes and a Century now.

  4. Thanks for stopping by David. You should most definitely check out Syndromes, though you might have the same response to it as I did to Boonmee where the reality just can’t quite live up to expectations.

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