DVD Catch-Up: Uncle Boonmee Who Could Recall His Past Lives(11/24/2011)


The Oscar season will be beginning soon and with it will probably be at least a half a dozen articles about how “elitist” the Academy is for honoring “arty” movies instead of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.  These articles boil my blood firstly because they’re anti-intellectual stupidity and secondly because the movies that the academy tends to honor are usually far from being “art movies.”  The movies that win Oscars are usually mainstream movie, mainstream movies that cater to an older audience, but mainstream movies just the same (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  In fact The Kings Speech and The Hurt Locker look like Michael Bay movies when you compare them to the type of real art movies that tend to win at film festivals like Cannes and Venice.  An excellent example of this is the recent film from the Thai filmmaker Apitchatpong Weerasethakul: Uncle Boonmee Who Could Recall His Past Lives, a challenging film that defies almost every conventional expectation that audiences have when watching a film.

As the film opens a man named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying of a kidney disease and is being taken care of by his nephew Thong (Sakda Kaewbuadee).  One night his dead wife returns to him as a ghost, as does his long lost son who has become some kind of Monkey demon with glowing eyes.  From here we watch Boonmee’s final days including a reminicance he has about a past life where he is a Princess who stops by a lake and has a rather strange encounter with a catfish which she identifies as a water god…

If that sounds strange to you you’re probably in good company: this movie is completely batshit insane but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  As can be surmised by that synopsis, this is not exactly a narrative film, it’s more like a fever dream and I’d be lying if I said that I really understood it or for that matter really knew that there was anything to understand.  I could say the same to some extent about Weerasethakul’s earlier films like Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, which were both less aggressive in their weirdness but which also traded in minimal exposition and a dreamlike atmosphere that’s unique in the world of cinema.  The closest thing I can compare it to are the works of David Lynch which also employ a certain casual surreality, but Weerasethakul’s film’s lack Lynch’s darker sensibilities.  Another reason that this film is rather difficult to understand is cultural.  As the title implies, the film is steeped in Buddhism (a religion I’m not overly familiar with), but also in Thai mythology.  Of course there have been other movies like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring that are just as steeped in Buddhism that haven’t baffled me, so I’m not trying to turn this into an excuse for the film, but it is something to lay down on the table.

So, I’ve now established that this movie is really weird and that it will most likely baffle 99% of audiences just as much as it baffled me, and yet I don’t dislike this movie and wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it.  While the plot is baffling, it is completely unpredictable and unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.  Weerasethakul’s style has a sort of lyrical beauty to it that is hard to ignore and should be seen by anyone interested in world cinema.  It should also be noted that my concession of bewilderment at the film’s “plot” is not something that I’m ashamed of; in fact I think it’s the best attitude to have about the film.  I don’t think that this is some kind of puzzle that needs to be put together, I think it’s something that the viewer should simply experience, something one should allow to wash over them.

*** out of Four

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