Mar 7, 2011
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
This is the film that won this year's Palme D'Or at Cannes.
Like all of extraordinary Thai director Apitchapong Weeraseethakul's movies, Uncle Boonmee it is a strange, transfixing melange of narratives that do not follow the traditional three-act structure that we are used to expect in movies, nor much else. The easiest thing to say about him is that his films are poetic, but that is misleading and simplistic, because their poetry is both flinty and deeply sensitive.
Api (for the sake of brevity) is concerned with the strange and sometimes surreal marriage of modernity and tradition in his country, of spirituality and materialism, and of new and ancient storytelling. He also explores human relationships with spirits, animals and hybrid beings in between. It's hard to describe exactly what he does, (learning that he comes from an experimental film background helps. He applies experimental thinking to traditional narratives, both cinematic and otherwise), but the way he does it is just beautiful, with subtlety and wit, great tenderness and sheer originality. Nothing else looks or feels like his movies. They are deeply symbolic but at the same time surprisingly matter of fact about their own strangeness: a sort of totally deadpan magical realism (I use this term with huge reservations). He is astonishingly unpretentious, given how non-linear his films are.
This is a movie about the dense texture of memory. But it is more about the feeling of it, than about the memories themselves. Uncle Boonmee, a sweet guy who lives in the forest, is dying of kidney failure. He thinks his suffering is the result of karma: he killed a lot of communists and this troubles him. He starts seeing ghosts and strange apparitions from his past. The people sitting next to him see the apparitions too. After the slightest frisson of shock, they all interact as if this was the most natural thing in the world. His dead wife shows up, and so does his long lost son, who is now a ghost monkey, and he tells his story. His creatures look slightly cheesy, but they are still powerful apparitions. For how do you represent the spiritual world on film? Api does it in surprisingly simple ways. And it works. He doesn't need millions of dollars in CGI. He sometimes uses the same effects pioneered by Georges Meliés, equally beautifully and effectively. He can use a guy that looks like Chewbacca with a dye job and the effect is less comic than it is powerful.
In the middle of the telling of Uncle Boonmee's story, Api cuts to a different story, in another era, where a princess is traveling through the forest and is in love with one of the lackeys that carry her. She is deeply unhappy about her looks and her life, and as she gazes at her reflection in a pond, she gets into a conversation with a catfish. This is the sort of thing that just happens in his movies. You need to surrender to the new story like the woman surrenders to the catfish.
Then the movie goes back to the story of Uncle Boonmee. I hate to even tell you this, as you need to know nothing and let yourself be immersed in its rich, unsettling world and surprised by its gentle wit and wisdom.
I really liked Uncle Boonmee. However, never again shall I have pasta and wine before a dense poetic film. The scenes are long and sometimes static, but if you blink, you might miss something miraculous. As much as I liked it, Uncle Boonmee is not my favorite film of his. That would be Syndromes and a Century and also Anthem, an extraordinary short that encapsulates his style and his mastery of the craft. Apparently, in Thailand before every film screening people have to rise and sing the national anthem and blessings are bestowed on movie theaters and other public places. So he created his own version of the blessing. It's a piece that could easily belong at the video section at MoMa (and it's so much better than some of the stuff that is there already).
Born in 1970, Api is very young to be such a masterful artist. I had the opportunity to approach him, as he was so open and approachable, and told him that we are blessed by his films.