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Film Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

December 4, 2010

Olga Stebleva reports on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s tale of memory, loss and spiritual re-emergence.  

Independent Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has said that the main feature of his cinematic work is its understatement. So it is not strictly necessary to be familiar with Thai folklore, religion and history to appreciate his films. As a result of this attitude, Apichatpong’s most recent film – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) – received the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year.

The plot of Uncle Boonmee is both simple and extremely difficult to retell. The only thing that really takes place is the return to nature of an ill man who, dying of kidney failure, spends the last few days of his life in the company of his nephew and a limping sister-in-law. Impenetrable dialogues given in Thai flow through the narration; the characters slowly move from one side of the screen to another, the grass whispers in the background, the bees buzz at the apiary.

The spiritual element of the film lies in the world Uncle Boonmee inhabits, which seems to exist behind the looking glass in some gap which does not intersect with everyday reality. He leaves behind his ordinary life, with no prospect of return. Sensing Uncle Boonmee’s disease and his imminent end, spirits gather around him like moths around the flame, so that one evening his family and his Laotian medical assistant are joined at the dinner table by the spirit of Boonmee’s wife, dead for 19 years, and his lost son, who has turned into a monkey god. Neither Boonmee nor his living friends are confused or surprised by this. The dead mix with the living, the legendary with the real, the mental with the actual. Viewers join the mythological space inhabited by the film’s characters, one which represents certain philosophical and religious perceptions of the world (with allusions to Zen Buddhism) and symbolises some half-way stage between life and death.

There is no death. Life slowly leaves the body of a human being, flowing out like liquid. The film’s narration is pricked with incomprehensible irony: “Why did you grow your hair so long?” – asks the sister-in-law of Boonmee’s son, the monkey-god who mildly resembles Star Wars’ Chewbacca. One incarnation is replaced by another, reflection follows reflection, and the narration is interrupted by separate stories which have nothing to do with the main plot and could either be the final incarnations of Uncle Boonmee or dreams of another reality, or both. A princess sees a false reflection in water and walks into it, only become embroiled in a sexual relationship with a catfish. A black bull runs through the forest in the darkness of the night. These are almost independent pieces of film, of pure video art, with the water’s reflections and the branches’ blackness offering conflicting allusions and interpretations.

The film itself is part of the director’s ‘Primitive’ project, which includes short films, video-installations and photographs. Some of these separate elements can be seen in the film, for instance the photoshots with the ‘monkey-king’ which are shown one by one and are accompanied by Uncle Boonmee’s monologue in the background. Apichatpong considers each of the film’s elements to be united under several key ideas: memories of things past, the return to origins and to nature. Which is exactly where Uncle Boonmee goes on his final journey: to the jungle. Yet the cave in which life leaves him is the point of departure for further reincarnations. The film, just like the flow of human energy, doesn’t end with the death of the main character, but continues on into the future.

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