Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): * * * *
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives details the final days in the life of the eponymous character, who is dying of kidney disease. The film also features ape ghosts with glowing red eyes who stalk the forest in anticipation of Boonmee’s departed spirit.
The works of Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul have always straddled the mundane and the psychospiritual, often times within the same scene, but all of Weerasethakul’s preoccupations seem to meet their apex in Boonmee. The film is shaggier than its predecessor, Syndromes and a Century, returning to the swoony, free-form jungle idyll of Blissfully Yours and Tropical Maladay.
I’ll attempt a quick plot synopsis but it won’t do you much good: In a clearing, a farmer’s cow breaks free of its fetters and wanders into the thick of the jungle. The farmer retrieves it, unaware that they’re being observed by one of the forest spirits (the aforementioned ghost ape). Not long after this we meet Boonmee himself (Thanapat Saisaymar), sitting for dinner accompanied by the sister of his dead wife (Jenjira Pongpas) and their friend (Weerasethakul regular Sakda Kaewbuadee). They are soon joined by Boonmee’s dead wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and his son, Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong). After an unfortunate mating session with a ghost ape, Boonsong has himself been transformed into a hirsute, red-eyed monster.
The two uncanny guests intimate that they’ve arrived as a response to Boonmee’s impending death. The rest of the film (very loosely) takes us to Boonmee’s end (with little actual recalling of past lives, despite the title). There’s an aside involving a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) who is lured into a tryst with a lecherous catfish. And a brilliant, La Jetee-inspired reverie involving a harrowing look into a future where people can be erased by means of a film projector. And a cave sparkling with bio-luminescence that may or may not be the womb wherein Boonmee is reborn into his next life. And a monk who seems to accidentally inhabit two possible realities.
And so on.
The reductive, clumsy effect of words in analyzing BOONMEE is a testament to the power of his images. This is the “pure cinema” practiced by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, et al that doesn’t fit comfortably into any category. It’s quite an accomplishment that something so singular could scoop up the Palme d’Or, as Boonmee did last year. And it’s also hard to watch the film without thinking about this year’s Palme winner: the equally puzzling (though more somber) Tree of Life. Boonmee is as much about dealing with death and the spiraling sprawl of memory as the Malick film. And while Boonmee hews to a Judeo-Christian cosmology, Boonmee is rigorously animist in its worldview, which partially accounts for their completely disparate results.
With a film like Boonmee, discussing the director’s formal intentions constitutes a “spoiler alert” more than any plot revelation would. So it might be giving away too much to note that Weerasethakul conceived the film as a reel-by-reel homage to different genres and styles of film – documentary, fairy tale, ghost story, improvised drama, experimental, etc. The reel breaks are definitely palpable (especially revisiting the film with the knowledge that they exist), but each story is told with a blend of all of the above that is distinctly Weerasethakul. The numinous and mundane clash and intermingle, and long pauses occur as the camera holds on everyday natural objects (the sun through the trees, the mouth of a cave, fish churning in underwater rapids), shot in such a way that they become alive with new possibilities.
After Syndromes, I’d expected Weerasethakul’s style to refine even further, so I went into Boonmee expecting a bit more of a disciplined narrative. I was foolish to do so. Weerasethakul still teems with the same restless creative energy as his beloved jungle. Apropos of the title, Boonmee is essentially Weerasethakul reconstituting his body of work, for better or worse.
NOTE ON THE DVD: “Uncle Boonmee is about… what? I don’t know,” Weerasethakul jokes in the interview that accompanies Strand Releasing’s Boonmee DVD. The film benefits immensely when considered along with the extratextual elements. For once, the twenty minutes of deleted scenes contained on the DVD are a useful appendix to the film itself, expanding (and, at times, even explaining) the film’s world and allowing Weerasethakul to dabble further into formalist muscle-flexing. The germs for the film can be found in two of the director’s short experiments, Phantoms of Nabua and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. These are both invaluable supplements to the film and can be found in various spots online (the latter is included on the Blu-Ray DVD for Boonmee).
The fifteen-minute interview with the Weerasethakul is a bit of a revelation. The director expresses an obvious affinity for Chris Marker’s work but also cites E.T. and Star Wars as the unlikely impetus for his wanting to get into filmmaking in the first place.
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