International Cinema: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Strand Releasing
When we think of ghost stories or journeys into the afterlife we usually think of white winged angels, clouds and the sun or in opposing cases frightening entities that threaten to take a film’s set of characters down into the bottom of Hell itself.  Posited somewhere in the middle of these two opposite extremes audiences have grown accustomed to is Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mystical and transcendent 2010 Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the first ever Thai film to win such a high honor. 
A healthy if not matter of fact look at death and rebirth that is at once distinctly Thai while also offering achingly beautiful supernatural imagery tinged with magical realism, the film is as much about the process of dying as the film itself unspooling in real time as a medium is dying off over the course of the movie.  Part of a loose multi-platform art project embarked upon by Weerasethakul while also being an autobiographical spiritual journey, watching the film is less of a piece of conventional storytelling than it is a rite of passage.  Despite the language and cultural barriers, the film speaks to a universal experience we all confront in different forms or another.

The titular Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is slowly dying from kidney failure, residing on a secluded farm with his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) while his assistant Jai (Samud Kugasang) regularly administers kidney dialysis treatments.  One night while they’re all having dinner, the ghost of Boonmee’s late wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears out of thin air sitting at the table with them.  Soon after, they are joined by a hairy bright glowing red-eyed creature called a ‘Monkey Ghost’ which turns out to be the reincarnation of Boonmee’s long lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong).  From here, the film becomes an increasingly ethereal and dreamy netherworld journey towards eventual dissolution of the soul and body altogether.
A movie that is as much about death as it is thoroughly infused with death itself, right down to its cinematographic process of 16mm film lensed in the Thai jungles by three cinematographers Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Charin Pengpanich.  Inspired by the Buddhist abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti’s 1983 book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives who did in fact meet a real Boonmee who claimed he could do as the title says and primarily written, produced and directed by Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee isn’t so much a piece of storytelling as it is an experience beyond words.  

Somewhere between the spiritual battlefields of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky with the fleeting mystical beauties of Ron Fricke, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn’t so much try to have the final word on the process of death and dying as it tries to approach it from an angle we haven’t thought of before.  While having no original score, the film is a dreamy if not subtly haunted and spooky soundscape of ambience, trees and wind, heartbeats and soft whispers.  A film that works you sonically into a strange headspace you’re not really sure how to react to, Uncle Boonmee soon becomes a journey inward that gets increasingly surreal, occasionally provocative and ultimately from a place that’s new and mysterious.  

Performance-wise everyone does their job pretty well, naturally settling into Weerasethakul’s painterly if not otherworldly Thai landscapes.  The real star of this ensemble piece, however, is Weerasethakul himself who makes the narrative design and structure of the film pointedly different than anything audiences have come across about the nebulousness of the afterlife.  In the years since winning the Palme d’Or and appearing on numerous critical top ten lists for 2010, Weerasethakul has continued in the direction of making mysterious genre-defying existential journeys through life and death for the next ten years including but not limited to Cemetery of Splendor and his limited-edition English-language toured theatrical film Memoria.  

A director whose films are less analyzed and discussed than they are felt and absorbed into our system and subconscious, the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is startlingly refreshingly uncategorizable.  Where most pictures have a beginning, middle and end, Weerasethakul’s films and particularly Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives are less concerned with our final words about them than what we take and internalize from them and how they exist in the memory.  You don’t watch Weerasethakul’s films so much as they imprint themselves into your heart and soul.

--Andrew Kotwicki