Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Movie Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives ****
Directed by:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written By: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar (Boonmee), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Tong), Jenjira Pongpas (Jen).

Whether the Cannes jury led by Tim Burton meant to or not, by giving Apichatpong Weerasethakul the Palme D’Or – the most prestigious prize in the film world – this year has made his film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a film that has inspired fevered debate. On one side, you have people like Peter Howell, who in the wake of the victory noted that it was a ridiculous choice – that this art film would die a quick death in a few art house theaters and then be forgotten forever and that the film didn’t deserve comparison to such films as La Dolce Vita, Apocalypse Now or Kagemusha – three films that one the same prize in years past. On the other side, were people and publications like Cinemascope who proclaimed this the most important decision a Cannes jury has ever made – said that it may just be the greatest film to ever win the Palme – and how this was a strike back for art film lovers, and people like Howell are completely out to lunch and doesn’t understand films like this or what they mean. A debate like this is unfair to the film itself – which is a great film, but one where I can’t help but think that Howell may be right about. This is never going to be an audience pleasing film, nor does it have to be. The film is no greater nor no worse than it would have been regardless as to whether it won the Palme D’Or, or got ignored by the jury. The film has to ultimately succeed or fail based on what is one screen.

For me, what was onscreen was hypnotic, beautiful and entrancing. I have often that many viewers are intimidated by so called art films by thinking that they may not understand them – which has always struck me as ridiculous because for the most part, they are very simple films. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is no exception. It is about precisely what you think it is about – an old farmer named Boonmee who is slowly dying of liver disease. He sister in law and nephew come to visit him in his final days, where he remains in surprisingly good spirits. At dinner one night, they are joined by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife, and later by the soon they had together who has disappeared. He has come back – but not strictly as himself, but as a Monkey Ghost with glowing red eyes (there are a lot of them in the film, making for some of the most striking visuals the film has to offer). He has transformed into this Monkey Ghost because he has mated with one. This, in a way, is Boonmee recalling his past life – not one before this life, but just earlier in this life. There is another striking scene involving a princess who is only beautiful when she looks into a specific pool of water. She goes there often, and on this occasion she speaks to a catfish. Is this a past life, a dream, does it matter?

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives does not really adhere strictly to the rules of narrative filmmaking, but rather to dream logic. All of what we see could be real or could be a dream and you could drive yourself crazy trying to identify precisely what is real, and what isn’t – but it doesn’t really matter does it? What matters is the visuals in a film like this, and they are haunting and provocative. Apichatpong has made a film where each segment has a different visual scheme and look – the film is as much a tribute to cinema as anything else – and amazingly they all fit together. Lest you think that this is purely a visual exercise, let me assure you it isn’t. It is about Boonmee who is dying and worries about his past sins – specifically that he killed too many communists, which could be represented in all the mosquitoes who buzz around him annoying him to no end, and not letting him get any real peace.

The final segment of the film is the hardest one, at least to be, to reconcile as it takes place after Boonmee has died, and focuses on his remaining family – his sister in law, her daughter (who we had not seen up to this point) and the nephew who has also visited him and has now become a monk. He visits his family, showers and changes out of his robes. As they are about to leave the apartment for dinner, he notices that while he is talking to his aunt, there is another version of her, and himself, just sitting there watching TV. I think what is going on is that Apichatapong is showing us how there are different versions of ourselves – we are essentially different people throughout our lives – but perhaps I don’t know.

I don’t really care that I may not fully understand Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I don’t necessarily think it is important to enjoying the film – or at least being entranced by it. I like it when a film challenges you to try and decipher its meanings – even when you know that may never be able to figure it all out. I also know, however, that I am in the minority of filmgoers who feel that way. If you want narrative cohesion – a film that proceeds logically from point A to B to C and spells everything out for you than this isn’t the film for you – like Peter Howell, you will simply grow frustrated with it. But if you are adventuresome – willing to open yourself up to something different than you normally see than Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a must see. I just can’t guarantee you’ll understand it all – I didn’t, but still loved it.

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