Posted May 5, 2011 by Emily Williams in Films

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Cinema

Director Apichatpong (Joe) Weerasethakul has been one of the
most influential arthouse film directors in recent years, with Blissfully
Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century receiving widespread
critical acclaim. His newest offering, the somewhat awkwardly titled Uncle
Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
is no different: it won the Palme d’Or
at this years Cannes Film Festival.

For those familiar with Weerasethakul’s work, there will be
much to recognise in ‘Uncle Boonmee’, a gentle, quiet, magical film. But in
many ways, it is a more approachable film that its predecessors, and since
getting the stamp of approval at Cannes, has the potential to introduce
Weerasethakul to a wider audience.

‘Uncle Boonmee’ is still a challenging film, however. While
closer to a linear narrative that his other films, it still knocks the viewer
off centre on occasion,
with a somewhat stream of consciousness narrative
feeling. Time and space are manipulated and dislocated, and the viewer is forced
to suspend disbelief at every turn
. Moreover, it doesn’t give anything away, or
make very much explicit; rather, the viewer has to decide what the meaning of
scenes are, and who characters really are, by themselves.

Uncle Boonmee (Saisaymar) is a middle-age man dying from kidney failure, who retreats
to a childhood home in rural, north-eastern Thailand to live out his last days.
He brings along his sister-in-law
Jen (Pongpas), and his young cousin Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and hires
a Laotian migrant Jaai (Kugasang) to be his nurse.

Here, Boonmee has
flashbacks to his previous lives, but it is not necessarily clear which scenes feature
other lives and which don’t. The prolonged opening scene with a renegade water
buffalo and the scene featuring the unhappy princess having sex with a talking
catfish seem obvious enough, but you’re left guessing what they mean, and
whether they are the only past lives you’re meant to know about. The continual
fascination with the killing of insects throughout the film, for example, leads
you to wonder if there is a deeper story there.

Previous lives are
resurrected too in other ways: Boonmee’s dead and disappeared family return to
visit him. His wife Huay (Aphaiwonk) appears magically at the dinner
table, followed soon after by his son, Boonsong (Kulhong), who has
been reincarnated as a ‘monkey ghost’. Ultimately, Boonmee must take a final
journey to find the site of his original birthplace in order to find peace.

A lot of the film
is, rationally speaking, absurd. But this is not only the point, but also the
joy of the film. Weerasethakul plays with the fluid intersections of
life and death, culture and nature
, celebrating this world – unknowable to science
– but deeply important to other ways of life. Heavy issues, no doubt, but dealt
with with a comic deftness that must be appreciated. Boonsong’s return, for
example, as a hairy ape-man, with glowing red eyes, is met with immediate
remonstrations from Jen over why he let his hair get so long. When Boonmee
suggests that Jen comes and lives in the area after he dies, Jen’s immediately
questions why she would want to live ‘with all the ghosts and migrant workers’.

More a meditation upon the boundaries surrounding human life
than any coherent story, ‘Uncle Boonmee’ is mesmerising and tantalising,
drawing you in with its lengthy, contemplative scenes, likeable characters, and
picturesque scenery. You may not know quite what you’re watching, but you won’t
be able to look away.

Emily Williams