Phil on Film Index

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat )

Within the first five minutes of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives you'll find my favourite cinematic image of 2010. The film opens at night, and we watch as a tethered ox breaks free and wanders into the woodland. He is eventually caught by his owner and led back from whence he came, but there is something else lurking in this jungle, and the sharp cut that introduces it is startling. He is a shadowy, ape-like figure, standing upright and staring directly at us. His eyes, like small red lasers, are the only distinguishing features on this mysterious silhouette. This is our first glimpse of the monkey ghost, and it is an arresting start to this amazing film, but it is by no means the last unusual happening that we'll experience as we venture into the world according to Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

What's remarkable – and delightful – about the presence of mysterious creatures in this film is the matter-of-fact way that Apichatpong, and his characters, deal with them. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a farmer living in a remote area of Thailand who is slowly dying of kidney failure. In his final days, he is being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and Jaai (Samud Kugasang), a Laotian immigrant. One evening, as they sit together at the dinner table, a spirit slowly materialises in the empty chair next to Tong. This is Huay (Natthakam Aphaiwonk), Boonmee's former wife, who died many years before. A few moments later, they are joined by a red-eyed monkey ghost, who wanders in from the night and takes a seat, before revealing himself to be Boonmee's long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). This is the strangest of family reunions, but that's exactly how Boonmee and the others welcome these mysterious apparitions – as family – registering less shock than delight at once again seeing those they had lost. "Why did you let your hair grow so long?" is the first question Boonsong is asked.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn't draw a line between any of the inhabitants of his jungle, whether they are humans, animals or spirits, and he suggests that it's the most natural thing in the world for one to flow into another. "I only know I was born here," Boonmee says, "I don't know if I was a human or an animal," and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives is a film driven by the ideas of Karma, reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. After the bipartite structure of his earlier works, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Pas Lives appears at first to be a more linear work, but the director is always ready to digress at a whim down some strange avenue, and one such tangent takes us into the story of a princess, distraught at her fading beauty, who has an encounter with a talking catfish. What is the relationship between this story and the main narrative? Is this an episode from one of Boonmee's former lives? Is he the catfish? That may be the case or it may not, but Apichatpong refuses to make anything concrete, preferring to leave his film entirely open for us to interpret as we wish.

I hope that doesn't make Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sound challenging or impenetrable, because I honestly believe nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that this director makes films like nobody else, but all it takes to appreciate his work is a slight adjustment to the distinctive rhythm and openness of his style, and a willingness to follow the path he sets for us even if we know we may not understand everything we see. Apichatpong is not an elitist, deliberately withholding the meaning of his films from the viewer, he is actually an extremely generous filmmaker, simply making a film that feels right to him and then asking the public to take what they want from it. I've seen it twice now and on both occasions I have been moved in different ways by the picture. Some viewers will be touched by the meditation on death and the cycle of life; some will see resonant allusions to Thai history and culture; some will simply marvel at the lyrical weirdness of it all. All responses are equally valid.

The one constant in every viewing will surely be astonishment as Apichatpong's stunning technique, the careful way he composes his shots (when he shifts to handheld camerawork late in the film, the effect is startling), the hypnotic rhythm of his editing and the stunningly involving and atmospheric sound design. Even if you don't understand what you're looking at in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the film is so mesmerising on a technical level it's impossible to look away. This director has always had an impressive command of his craft, but after two viewings, this strikes me as his most accomplished work, full of extraordinary examples of Apichatpong's rich imagination at work.

Many of those amazing moments are saved for the final section of the film, which sees the characters venturing out into the jungle, so Boonmee can rest in the pace where he will finally leave this life. He is led there by Huay – the dead guiding the living from one life to the next – but the sadness of these scenes is tempered by the knowledge that he will return, in some form or other. Similarly, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that takes many forms and one that endlessly shifts as we try to pin down its meaning, but there's also a simplicity and an essential truth to the way the film deals with encroaching death and asks us to find beauty and wonder in the everyday. Each viewing yields new treasures and for that reason it is one of the year's great films, but even with the Palme d'Or behind it, will viewers be willing to surrender themselves to the film and allow it to work its magic? All I can say is – take a chance. Enter the wonderful world of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and you may find you don't want to leave.