director Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was somewhat of a surprise. Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film is a mixture of realism and fantasy, or at least of some traditional Thai spiritual beliefs. Based on a loosely on a book about a man who claimed to really be able to recall his past lives, the story is really a meditation on life, spiritual belief, death, and in some other ways, Thai cinema.
Clearly, it’s not a film made for just everybody. In fact, Weerasethakul wasn’t even sure if his film would even be released in his native Thailand. I’d never seen any of his films before, though I’d heard of Tropical Malady (2004). While I wasn’t sure what I would think, I was intrigued.
The film is loaded with haunting imagery, evocative moments, and even some banal realism. The actors are not necessarily professional, which adds to the realistic quality but also stilts some of the moments of out-and-out weirdness.
Uncle Boonmee opens with a particularly strange scene of a cow, tied to a tree, who loosens itself and then wanders into the jungle. When the cow’s owner comes to retrieve it, a shadowy figure with red glowing eyes appears in the darkness without explanation.
Uncle Boonmee is dying from kidney failure. He lives on a farm in the jungle and is visited by his ex-sister-in-law. Soon he is also visited by the ghost of his dead wife and the form of his lost son, who disappeared into the jungle to become a monkey ghost (turns out he’s the furry thing with glowing red eyes). All of this weirdness is taken in relative stride, living amid a reality that allows for such things.
The film shifts in its slow-going pace from moments of strangeness and weird beauty to lingering moments of dull everyday reality, normal conversation that transcends into discussion of life and beyond. And then there is a sequence of a disfigured princess who has a sexual encounter with a catfish.
I’m not entirely sure what I think in the end. Is it brilliant? Is it naff? Is it sublime? I’m not sure. I feel somewhat haunted by aspects of the film, moments, scenes, images. But I wasn’t overwhelmed and invested to the level in which I would say that this film was indeed some tremendous feat of cinema. I’m still a bit at odds with it. But it is something strange and at times beautiful, at times a deeper, more audacious cinematic effort than most other films. It lingers. But does it stay? We will see.