Bit of a mouthful of a title that ain’t it? Not as bad as The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain but it’s close. Also this film doesn’t have Hugh Grant in it so that’s good. Sorry for the gap between this and my last review. I had Uncle Boonmee rented from Lovefilm and the copy I had started freaking out like Nicholas Cage in… any Nicholas Cage film… for the last 20 minutes. I got the jist of what was happening but didn’t want to commit to a review until I could watch the final scenes minus the frozen frames and skipped shots. So anyway, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives eh? Click the link for my views.
Uncle Boonmee is a Thai film by the awkwardly named Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Joe to his friends, that’s loosely based on the Thai book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives by the equally awkwardly named Phra Sripariyattiweti. I no resolve to not attempt to type either of those names in full ever again. I shall also refrain from ever attempting to pronounce them. The film tells the story of one Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar – This is review gonna be hell on my spell-checker) who’s gradually moving towards the last days of his life due to illness. His sister Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) has come to stay with him as his illness worsens. One day at dinner the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears at the table closely followed by Boonmee’s long lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who is no longer in a human form. I presented that in quite a matter of fact way didn’t I? That’s because that’s exactly how the film presents these events.
The film is very much steeped in Thai spiritualism and culture, a culture that believe ghosts can be tied to the living to watch over them. When Huay appears at the table there’s a brief moment where the character jump upon noticing her, we see her before they do without the shot ever moving, and soon they’re discussing their past as if she was a regular living person. When the bizarre and initially scary appearing Boonsong, now a part man part monkey creature with glowing red eyes, joins them at the table they react in much the same way as they did to Huay’s appearance. Apichatpong doesn’t present these moments as extraordinary because to a spiritual Thai person these events shouldn’t be.
A lot of the film consists of long slow moving conversations about life, change and spirituality. Apichatpong takes his time using plenty of pillow shots of the Thai countryside. As in some of his previous work there’s a lot of long shots of animals doing what they do. There is no rush at all here to tell the story at hand. As I’ve mentioned before this is one of the key differences between western and world cinema. The more Westernised films tend to be focused on a goal a character wishes to achieve whereas the more Eastern and artistic of films out there tend to be about a period of time in a characters life. This is not a film for fans of big explosions. Although fans of women having sex with a Catfish should definitely check this out. Yeah, I’m just gonna leave that there for you to muse over without explaining it.
Apichatpong certainly has a very classical cinema style eye to his shots. When I say classical I mean in the style of say Yasujiro Ozu, not Howard Hawks. The film appears to have been shot in segments each slanted towards a slightly different approach to shooting. Sometimes it’s very much, as mentioned, classical style. But at other times it’s a more documentary approach with handheld camera and more natural lighting. There’s even a segment shot in a near American romantic style involving a Princess and a Catfish (seriously, I’m not even gonna try to explain that part). Even though he jumps between these various styles each shot can still be identified as his. They all compliment each other and the film as a whole.
Whilst the story itself is slight and the dialogue very sparse Uncle Boonmee does manage to hold your attention. Provided you’re familiar with this style of film that is. I wouldn’t expect someone who’s never seen a film this sparse to be able to maintain their attention for the full near 2 hour runtime.
A lot of the second half of the film concerns Boonmee’s journey with his family into the mountains to attempt to find a place he believe held importance to him in previous lives. A place he believe he may have been born at in a previous life. In a more Westernised film this would have been the part where the characters get into some sort of trouble and after saving themselves a big special effect would have shown you Boonmee’s past lives. This films too smart for that sort of padding. Instead they wander through the forest discussing Boonmee’s feelings of finality and find a cave to settle in. They get back to nature for his last days in this form. It’s nice to see a film that shuns gloss in favour of pushing a more subtle and challenging series of ideas towards its audience.
Overall I can’t say Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives is a film everyone should see. It may not be to most peoples taste because of it’s lack of modern sensibilities but it’s certainly a film worth seeing if you like something a lot slower and thoughtful than most modern films. The film won the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2010 which is an impressive feat considering how far on the fringes this film is. At the very least I suggest looking into it to see if what you see clicks with you. If it does you may well discover a new favourite director, even if you can’t pronounce his name.