Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

****

Some critics may debate the modern relevance of the Cannes Film Festival. Arguably, over sixty years, it has gone from showcasing European glamour to being a showboat for major Hollywood releases (The Da Vinci Code, Robin Hood, etc). However, Cannes juries in recent years have had an uncanny ability to see past the bluster of bigger releases to honour those more personal films that truly leave an impact on their audience. This year, films like Another Year and Copie Conformé provided well acted character studies, but neither was quite as stirring, as memorable or as original as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The director (and spellcheck’s worst enemy) Apichatpong Weerasethakul (a.k.a. “Joe”) took the Palme d’Or with a film that is frequently bizarre but is never lacking in warmth or pathos.

The opening scene sees a cow escaping from the tree it’s tied to and running into a forest. It’s pursued and recovered by a farmhand. Whilst this is happening, a mysterious apelike creature with glowing red eyes is watching intently. Meanwhile, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is being visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). They’re also joined by the ghost of Boonmee’s late wife and one of those red-eyed creatures. It sounds like a truly strange trip, but Uncle Boonmee is not being bizarre for the sake of it; there are deeper themes below the surface. As these five characters are seated together at a dinner table, the living persons converse and quiz the ghost of Boonmee’s wife, while the creature (a ‘ghost monkey’, resembling Bigfoot’s emo brother) looks on. They are both there out of concern for Boonmee, who is dying of kidney disease and requires dialysis. He believes his death has come because he killed Communists in war and insects on his farm. Karma is a big theme here, and many of the characters are either looking to fulfil their purpose or to determine what their purpose is.

Uncle Boonmee boasts absolutely stunning visuals. Waterfalls glitter in moonlight and dawns in the rainforest illuminate the canopy brightly. Sounds are amplified and many scenes are heartbreaking in their simplicity. Long shots of people doing chores and embracing one another emphasize the theme of purpose. “Joe” has stated that the film has a personal meaning for him, but anyone can take any meaning from it if they so wish. Indeed, there will be many theories on those ghost monkeys, and many will argue the meaning of a scene in which a princess makes love with a catfish. Yes, you read that right. It seems even catfish have a purpose, however bizarre it may seem!

Uncle Boonmee defies categorization. It’s a drama, but plot mechanics are relegated behind atmosphere and the sense that greater themes are being dealt with than everyday narrative can contain. Think David Lynch by way of Wong Kar-Wai, and you still won’t come close to imagining the wonder of Uncle Boonmee. An acquired taste then, but one that’s well worth sampling.

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