Remembrance of Lives Past

By Andreas (500th post!)

If I want to watch a movie that follows patterns I already know, I can find one at any theater. If I need to see movies I can easily understand, ones that coddle me and flatter my intelligence, they’re all over the place. But a movie that confuses me, intrigues me, and shows me something I’ve never seen before? That would be something rare and ambitious. That would be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s out-of-this-world Palme d’Or-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011).

If you’ve read about Uncle Boonmee before, you’ve probably been exposed to a broad plot synopsis. Something like “As he dies of a kidney ailment, Uncle Boonmee is visited by ghosts from his past and recollects his past lives…” But Weerasethakul (also known as “Joe”) is a very playful director, and you won’t get anywhere with Uncle Boonmee if you’re too literal-minded. It’s wrapped loosely around a linear story, but it’s more accurately a series of visually lush riffs on the themes of death, loss, longing, and reincarnation.

Between these vignettes, Uncle Boonmee takes many forms. It’s a video installation, a folk tale, and some fantastic mesh of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. It’s maybe about Buddhism in modern-day Thailand, and maybe about militaristic bloodshed of the 1970s. With its unconventional structure and never-ending ambiguity, the film leaves few options: either marvel at the enchanting imagery, the droll humor, and Weerasethakul’s limitless imagination, or else protest the absurdity and the lack of clarity. It’s an “in or out?” proposition.

But once you step into Uncle Boonmee‘s magical world, you can succumb to its idiosyncratic rhythms. The film starts out at dusk, with a stray ox languidly strolling through the forest, and then introduces the red-eyed Monkey Ghosts, spirits who haunt its margins. With its leafy, gently supernatural milieu, Uncle Boonmee might be an avant-garde cousin of the anime classic Princess Mononoke. Just like Miyazaki, Weerasethakul sees potential friends and discoveries in even every corner of the wilderness.

I’ve only scraped the surface of Uncle Boonmee’s weird, powerful contents. There’s an erotic/comic interlude with a princess and a catfish, a segment consisting entirely of still images, and a finale I don’t think I’ll ever understand. But I don’t need to understand it in order to enjoy it—it’s like listening to a skilled storyteller carrying on in a beautiful alien language. I have little to no idea what literally happens in Uncle Boonmee, but I do have a whole set of powerful impressions and intuitions no other movie could give me, and I wouldn’t trade those for anything.

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema

3 responses to “Remembrance of Lives Past

  1. This is a perfect encapsulation of UNCLE BOONMEE. I absolutely loved it but have little idea what actually “happened”. Great great great review.

  2. BOONMEE is probably the only movie I didn’t write about last year just because I couldn’t. I’ll say that about that. I do admire that it makes the artistic THE TREE OF LIFE seem mainstream.

  3. @Alex: Thank you so much! Yeah, I’ll probably be trying to figure out that ending for years to come.

    @Paolo: That’s totally true. I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about how inaccessible The Tree of Life is, and it always makes me wonder… how would they deal with Uncle Boonmee?

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