AKA Uncle Boonmee
“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram
PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.
- Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
- Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
- The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
- Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
- Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of
Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.
COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight. Eventually, its human owner retrieves it. Then a large, hairy primate with glowing red eyes comes onscreen and stares straight into the camera. This is how Uncle Boonmee opens: wordless, tantalizing, with a relaxed pace and exquisite lighting. No explanation, no exposition, no cinematic shorthand. Just an ox, its master, and a “monkey ghost”—an omnipresent cryptid invented by Apichatpong, but “inspired by folk tales.” It’s entrancing. Or, if you like your narratives linear, it’s frustratingly opaque.
It’s an ideal “weird movie” litmus test. If, to quote A Serious Man, you can “accept the mystery,” then Uncle Boonmee might be the movie for you. As you can glean from the opening, the film’s story develops primarily by implication and ellipsis. Maybe that ox could be Uncle Boonmee in one of his past lives. Maybe Apichatpong’s saying something about nature’s willfulness, its eternal desire to roam free. Maybe the monkey ghost is an omen, or a signifier of pervasive magic, or a link between the past and present. Uncle Boonmee never holds your hand, but neither does it force you to think. Instead, it forces you to intuit, to caress its wonderfully tactile surfaces and follow your instincts.
As the film shifts into the present day, it becomes more concrete. We’re introduced to Boonmee, his Burmese caretaker Roong, his matronly sister-in-law Jen, and her son Tong. They joke, they eat, they discuss Boonmee’s kidney ailment; they have the casual but slightly awkward interactions you’d expect between relatives anticipating a death in the family. Apichatpong lets conversations and medical procedures play out in long, static, meticulously composed shots. It’s all so quotidian, yet hypnotically cinematic. Sonically nestled in the hum of crickets, these scenes acclimate us to Uncle Boonmee‘s magical reality. It’s warm, inviting, and full of surprises.
Like, for example, a scene where dinner table small talk is interrupted by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay. At first, the characters recoil. Then they engage with her. They instantly accept that the boundaries between life and death are permeable, especially now that Boonmee’s health is ebbing away. This reaction plays as absurdist comedy, but also as spiritual sophistication, and this overlap gets at the film’s light-hearted attitude toward the afterlife. “Heaven is overrated,” says Huay while embracing Boonmee. “There’s nothing there.” All of the performances are so deadpan, so unburdened by ego or affectation, that these traces of humor don’t feel glib or self-satisfied. They just feel like consistent manifestations of the film’s philosophical outlook.
For all its weighty subject matter, Uncle Boonmee never grows serious. It meanders along through Boonmee’s last days with an eye for sublime visual detail: the gray-green hue of the evening sky, or the chalky cave where the characters mysteriously travel as Boonmee fades away from life. It also takes a pair of inscrutable, fantastic detours: first to the past, for the tale of the princess and the catfish, then to a dream of the future told through still images, in homage to Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Throughout these chapters (and the grand finale that follows Boonmee’s death), the film traffics in everything but absolutes. It’s playful and unpredictable, dispensing options and suggestions like narrative candy. It’s not a puzzle box, but a cornucopia of mysteries. In its subdued way, it’s among the weirdest movies in history.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Uncle Boonmee at Strand Releasing – There’s little on Strand Releasing’s Uncle Boonmee page other than a few stills and the surprisingly hard-to-find US release trailer
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (German) – If you can read German, there’s much information to be gleaned about Uncle Boonmee here
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Guest Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – Guest reviewer Kevyn Knox’s original Uncle Boonmee rave for this site
Uncle Boonmee Pressbook – The strange and gorgeous English-language pressbook for the film (.pdf)
Uncle Boonmee: Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Virginie Sélavy of Electric Sheep interviews “Joe”
The late, great Apichatpong – Boonmee-focused profile of the director from the English-language Thai newspaper The Nation
DVD INFO: Uncle Boonmee has received a gorgeous DVD treatment from Strand Releasing (buy). In addition to a host of art house trailers, its special features include an interview with the affable Apichatpong and half an hour of deleted scenes. The film is also available on Blu-ray
(buy) and (at the time of this writing) on Netflix Watch Instantly.