Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee has been the toast of Cannes, but why?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Thai Palme d’Or-winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is, for better or worse, not a film easily forgotten. What it all means, and what Weerasethakul was trying to say with Boonmee is difficult to say, but the little certainty I have about this film is that it is not a might as clever or serene as it thinks it is, despite a few bursts of surreal, Lynchian humour. Whether whatever Weerasethakul was attempting to concoct has worked, Uncle Boonmee simply isn’t very stimulating or entertaining; to date, it is 2010’s most aggressively pretentious, critic-baiting and inaccessible film. Much like 2003’s recipient of the prestigious Palme, Elephant, it is simply too sparse and self-indulgent for its own good despite some interesting moments.

The titular Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying from a kidney disease, and has gathered with his family and friends – including the ghosts of his deceased wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and his dead son, Boonsong (Jeerasak Julhong) – as he talks them through the past lives that he has supposedly lived.

From the opening first shots of farmland animals staring at us, to the bemusing final ones, of characters sat on a bed, Uncle Boonmee is a highly elliptical, divisively esoteric film, as is the routine for Weerasethakul’s work. The deliberately slow pace, rather than intimating a command of time and space as in the ethereal works of Kim ki-duk, is incredibly obnoxious; there is a lack of any recognisable pulse here, and simply Weerasethakul has not found a particularly compelling setting or group of people on which to base a feature.

Things however do get more intersting once Boonmee’s departed relatives show up; his son, Boonsong, is some sort of primate beast (apparently caused by his having sex with a monkey spirit), which is admittedly hilarious, abetted by some dryly funny dialogue, and the deadpan work of the cast, who seem at their most alive in these, the film’s most welcoming moments.

For the most part, though, the dialogue, despite being information-dense, seems to amount to little. The sparseness of the film’s chit-chat would suggest a certain economy and selectiveness, yet when the characters dare to speak, they say little of interest with regard to character, setting, or in fact much of anything. Furthermore, for long stretches, characters are introduced with little indication of who they are – not that one expects to be spoonfed – but the film’s overarching minimalism is ultimately its undoing in terms of narrative tightness and general interest. The film liberally jumps temporally also – again, not that we need a ripple-effect every time it jumps back in time – and irritatingly, there is often not any sort of cue that we haved moved backwards.

At times, Uncle Boonmee is a film that feels like some sort of skewed satire on the sort of drivel people will digest as art, yet conversely, it features a scene of hilarious insanity, in which a woman has sex with a catfish. I don’t really know why it happened or what it means, but it is one of the film’s most genuinely alluring moments, and above all else, it will keep you awake to the finish line.

There are some occasional moments of resonance – the fact that Boonmee cannot wait to be reuinted with his dead wife – and there are a few interesting spiritual ideas at play, that ghosts are attached to people rather than constructs like Heaven and Hell. Sadly, these notions are as underdeveloped as anything else of interest in the film, and no further insights are given (it is more frustrating than an end-season Lost episode). A moribund late-day trek into a cave, meanwhile, makes the rest of the film seem positively enthralling, to the point that one almost wishes the film had suddenly transormed into a Descent-style slasher gorefest.

Uncle Boonmee is nevertheless pleasing a lot of people; it wowed Cannes and has a buzzing critical reception so far, but its head-scratchingly spare approach to everything concerned with conventional narrative techniques makes an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Film category incredibly unlikely, and thankfully so. Uncle Boonmee might be unlike anything we have ever seen before, but that is not to say that it is any good.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives premiered at the London Film Festival last night, with an additional screening today, before its limited UK cinema release on Friday, November 19th.


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