Tuesday, 26 October 2010

review of : uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives

uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives
by apichatpong weerasethakul
starring - sakda kaewbuadee, jenjira pongpas, thanapat saisaymar
certificate – tbc
running time – 114mins
release date – 19 november 2010

the thai director with the unpronounceable name is, with his fifth feature length, enjoying international recognition. “you can call me joe”, he says, aware that the audience will stutter if they intend to call him by his name.
‘joe’ is only 40 years old, looks younger than that and talks about comic books, soap operas and classic hollywood adventure films. these, he says, were all influences for his new film, this year’s palm d’or winner in cannes, uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives.

i’m sure he isn’t tricking anyone when he says he considers this a “very straight-forward film”. maybe in comparison with his other works, usually present in new-asian cinema retrospectives and adored by the masters of cinema crowd. no, the film isn’t straight-forward nor overly complex, it’s just cryptic and metaphorical, slow-paced and unusual. it’s also really, really good, so let’s get it out of the way - uncle boonmee is not the rough diamond that critics and festivals are raving around the world, it will upset a lot of cinephiles and introduce the work of this director to others. but it’s, nevertheless, one of this year’s most enigmatic and engaging pictures and any reason to miss the opportunity to watch it and engage in the discussion, is inexcusable.

if it wasn’t for the clue on the title, it would be even more difficult to decode the plot. uncle boonmee lives near the forest, he suffers from kidney problems but doesn’t contemplate death with the same fatalism of western mentality. instead he embarks on a journey of past reflections via his, supposed, past lives, who he can recall (there you go); his dead wife, who hauntingly appears to him in a physical manifestation in one of the prettiest images of ghosts one can think of; and his dead son who appears to him as monkey-person with ruby eyes, is one of the most unconvincing representations of ghosts one will see.

nothing actually happens. boonmee talks to his sister, and illegal caretaker. boonmee tells his wife he loves her. boonmee reminisces about killing communists and insects. boonmee visits his crops and workers. there isn’t a single moment of self-pity and this is all connected to the buddhist mentality behind the philosophy of the film. death, we think, is only a form of escapism into a different existence and the crossover between past and change lies in the centerfold of the film. right in the beginning, an ox escapes from a leash that ties him to a tree, and roams the forest in freedom; boonmee’s son’s death is represented by his wish to become a monkey-person; in its most memorable sequence, an ugly princess gives her body to a talking catfish so she can become beautiful.comparatively, boonmee does not rely on incarnation. he, aware of being an old soul who experienced the world in its many forms, falls on a journey to achieve full circle to his existence. one of the last sequences leads him to a cave where he reflects about the genesis of man, probably the closest this film will ever get to an arc.

and this is pretty much all i got without dwelling on the director’s notes, even some moments are kept too difficult to grasp, like the photomontage of a group of young guerilla soldiers with a captive monkey-person. apichatpong confessed that the film is inspired by the area where he grew up, his father’s death and, above all, the media. each twenty minute sequence, he says, is shot differently and that is impressive how well they connect to each other, yet, the small changes are noticeable. the reason is that each sequence mirrors a different media universe from television, soap operas, adventure movies, comic books, etc. “media is like a body, it disappears and comes back”, says the director thus shedding a bit of light. the end, with two characters watching themselves watching television, is cyclical and well done, and we guess that’s what he was talking about. for me it still relates to the willingness of escapism, where the ending represents it as pejorative for our inane and consuming society. so a careful viewer will never feel disconnected, if sometimes confused.

but the best way to praise this film is leave it open to discussion. every time i wrote how difficult it was, and it is, definitely not for everybody, i did it with the utmost admiration. true, it’s slow and impenetrable, but it also reaches a dreamlike quality that is addictive and puzzling.

[image: www.filmofilia.com]

[francisco silva]

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