Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
New Wave Films 

Release date: March 28th 2011
Certificate (UK): 12
Running time: 114 minutes

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Sakda Kaewbuadee, Jenjira Pongpas, Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwong, Jeerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Thongaram, Samud Kugasang, Wallapa Mongkolprasert, Sumit Suebsee, Vien Pimdee

The expansive title of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 Palme d’Or winning film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is befitting to this sly, mysterious and meandering reverie on- well, on what?

On life and death may be the easiest answer. (But then, what isn’t about life and death?) Uncle Boonmee has taken leave from Laos for the orchards and jungles of Northern Thailand, where he once lived, in anticipation of the final departure which he knows is rapidly approaching. (Or perhaps he is a farmer indigenous to the region, who has been in the hospital in town? It’s difficult- as of everything else in this film- to know for sure.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

With him are his sister-in-law, Jen, who I believed for some of the film to be his wife, and his nephew Tong. They pick fruit, eat honey directly from the hive, and talk about things trivial and profound. Boonmee prepares- or is prepared- for his death.

In Weerasethakul’s creation, ghosts, mythical creatures and spiritual transmigration exist alongside the prosaic and material world of Pentax cameras, kidney dialysis and unexpurgated dialogue about luggage.

So when Boonmee’s wife, who has been dead for nineteen years, fades into vision at the dinner table one evening, the living three are only mildly bemused. And when their long-lost son, Boonsong, looms out of the darkness transformed into a primate, Jen merely inquires why he has grown his hair so long. It is a scene by turns hilarious and sobering, fashioned from the unbridled capriciousness of imagination.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

It is, perhaps surprisingly, a film with keen comic instincts. The po-faced pseudo-spiritualism we might associate with (Western appropriations of) Buddhist thought is counteracted by what I want to call serious humour, of the kind that is neither amusing embellishment nor an apology for excessive solemnity. It is a rare achievement to marry gravity and comedy, generally only possible under the pressure of despair, or the influence of considerable wisdom.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

After that exaltation, I’m going to hurl this review back to earth by saying that I hardly noticed Uncle Boonmee when I first watched it. It would undoubtedly be more engrossing in the sensory deprivation vault of a cinema than on the small screen in my living room, with distractions like wallpaper.

But like ink diffusing in water it has gradually affected me. With some thought and a second viewing it is beginning- but only just- to yield some riches.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
It would be unfair, however, to dock many points for my impatient philistinism. The gently deepening impressions it begins to make are suggestive of a powerful and coherent film- if such a nebulous constellation of images and happenings can correspond to what we now think of as cinema.

It is, as others have observed, “poetic” in inclination- which is somewhat of a pejorative description these days. Some are undoubtedly to interpret it, like poetry, as vacuous conceitedness barely disguised by tedium and obscurity. It isn’t fashionable to defer to culture in this era, only quite recently dawned, of nearly ubiquitous marketplace conditions. The emphasis is squarely on the art object to provide its “service” like a retailer; and if it fails to do so, you’re entitled to trash it as a “boring, pretentious muddle” (see The Daily Mail’s review of Uncle Boonmee). Or why not just report the impudent thing to Trading Standards. It has failed in its commercial duty and is a downright insult to your consumer rights.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

I don’t want to champion esoteric cinema as such, but just because a movie declines to precipitately hand over its treasure like a petrified victim it doesn’t follow that there has been some failure of generosity or imagination on the filmmaker’s part. Often quite the reverse is true.

It is frequently said, by the kind of people who say such things, that you get out of life what you put in. The same is just as true of art.

Short of a high-pitched, vague and lyrical eulogy that would probably have more to do with me than the film, I don’t think I can do Uncle Boonmee the justice it almost certainly deserves. But such a response is characteristic to an artwork which refuses to prescribe understanding, preferring to opens its heart to ours in semantic cooperation. It is, I have less and less doubt, an extremely subtle, intuitive and brilliant film.

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