Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, "Tropical Malady") take a bus out to the country of northeast Thailand to care for her brother-in-law, who is succumbing to liver failure. On his large and peaceful farm, the ghost of Jen's sister, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), joins the group, as does her long lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), in the form of a monkey-man, to care for the last days of "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives."
Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka 'Joe,' his well known chosen nickname) won his second prize at Cannes - this time the Palme d'Or - with this lyrical and mesmerizing portrait of a dying man whose illness draws the living, the dead and the somewhere in-between. One can see themes from previous films, like the medical subject, dual timelines, city/country divide and parental autobiography (Boonmee is loosely based on a real person and the director's own dad), of "Syndromes and a Century" or the man/beast transformation of "Tropical Malady." Fans of Weerasethakul will be rewarded by his latest, but others may be frustrated by the amount of decision making he places in his audiences hands - we are not spoon fed, simply given sequences to make of them what we will. Is Boonmee recalling his former life as a princess or a catfish? Is that Boonmee's son in the cave or a previous iteration of his spirit?
The film opens on a water buffalo in the dark hours before dawn or after twilight (much of "Uncle Boonmee is shot at night, making us work for some of its images). He's wandering away, enjoying his environment, before he is tugged back. Before we've even met Uncle Boonmee, we've apparently entered his dreams of prior existence. When Jen and Tong arrive, Tong begins caring for Boonmee's illness, but Boonmee is still able to give his relatives a tour of his farm. Jen is a bit frightened of his chief worker Jaai (Samud Kugasang) because he is an illegal Laotian, but later warms up (there is an puzzling exchange in which Jaai confides he will be leaving soon and that he believes Boonmee knows this, but it is clear that he does not). Boonmee tells Jen he intends to leave his farm to her and that he will come back to help her. Boonmee says his illness is retribution for killing Communists and all the insects on his farm. Jen believes the former was patriotic duty and indulges in the latter herself with gusto.
The dinner sequence and Boonmee's dream that follow are the heart of the film. As the three sit talking, suddenly Huay appears next to Tong, who moves away in alarm. Jen and Boonmee great her warmly, though, as if nothing was amiss. A while later, Tong is startled by a noise. A pair of glowing red eyes (inspired by old Thai horror films) moves up the staircase and a figure moves into the light, covered in fur like a Lon Chaney wolfman. He says he is Boonmee and Huay's son who went missing shortly after her death. He became a photographer who caught a strange creature on film one day and hunted for it obsessively. One of these became his wife. Later as Boonmee drifts to sleep, he dreams of an aging princess who rejects the sedan chair carrier she fancies when he will not look at her. A catfish gives her a reflection of her youthful self and she gives herself to him (catfish sex!).
For a film that moves slowly, presenting ideas for us to mull over, "Uncle Boonmee" is so intriguing and beautiful to look at that it passes surprisingly quickly. But after Boonmee's death in a glittering cave, Weerasethakul concludes with a coda that is more jarring than what has come before it. Jen and a friend go through Boonmee's funeral envelopes counting money and Tong, now a monk, arrives because he dislikes his room in the monastery. He takes a long shower, then changes into civilian clothes. He and Jen wish to go for something to eat, but Roong (Kanokporn Thongaram) prefers to continue watching the hotel room television. So Jen and Tong leave - but they also remain - splitting their spirits in half. The idea is a radical departure from what we have seen before (Weerasethakul claims to be 'attacking the movie's time and reference points') and the two events so thoroughly commonplace that it deflates the film's beautifully achieved mood. Still, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" can be a transporting, mystical experience.
Robin did not see this film.
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