Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) dir. by Apichatpong Weerasethakul Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar and Jenjira Pongpas
By Blair Stewart
Like an animal rejoining its pride, Uncle Boonmee returns to his rural Thai birthplace to die as he has died many times past. This is the jumping-off point for the narrative of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which isn't concerned with telling his story as much as it wants to instill in the viewer a languid, surreal spiritualism.
While fading with kidney disease Uncle Boonmee's sister and nephew have joined him on his farm along the dense jungle of the Laotian border. As Boonmee is making peace with his most recent life his house welcomes the arrival of his long-dead wife and the presence of his missing son in the form of a simian-like entity with beaming red eyes. While his life winds down Boonmee reflects on his previous incarnations around his stomping grounds; a rebellious ox gone walkabout in the countryside, a talking catfish who has a tryst with a Princess-or was that Boonmee who was once the Princess? Boonmee will express guilt from his time spent spilling blood for the military, his fears of a future police state for his nation, all the ebb and flow of departed time.
This would be silly if it weren't for the hypnotic nature of the film's mood from the first shot on; no manipulative bedside performances, instead a Zen acceptance of death on moonlit rice paddies. It helps that both the night pilgrimage of Boonmee towards his possible destination and the ghostly appearance of his son are so full of sublime imagery that they've stayed with me for days afterwards now. I'll say further that the introduction of his dead son's ink-black apparition is a moment of profound dread and wonder rarely found in today's theaters.
The performances by a cast of unknowns and non-actors are unruffled in matching the relaxed nature of the graceful old man's passage. As a director who shares the talents of Wong Kar-Wai's detached romanticism, Tarkovsky's haunted mysticism and Buñuel's playful weirdness, Weerasethakul also has a habit of esoteric onanism at the expense of my patience. If you enjoy elegant plotting or you prefer your ghost tales with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore you'll likely want to avoid this work. The many transgressions from Uncle Boonmee's main story can often frustrate but I see why it won film's highest honour, (the 2010 Cannes Palme d'Or) Weerasethakul has an understanding of filmic mood that can translate into masterpieces. Despite its memorable qualities, I don't think Uncle Boonmee is that masterpiece, but still a perplexing and spiritually rewarding piece of cinema.