Saturday, October 2, 2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Country: Thailand

After the tidy and at-times sterile spaces of 2006's Syndromes and a Century, which has been recognized by many as the best film of the previous decade, Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned to the dark, mysterious depths of the jungles of Thailand for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It is the latest in a series of works that are part of his Primitive project, which is centered around the town of Nabua in northeast Thailand where government soldiers tortured and killed farmers suspected of being communists between 1965 and the early 1980s. Through an installation piece, the short films Phantoms of Nabua and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and the feature Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul has adressed the topics of memory, community and, in keeping with his ongoing interest in Buddhism, reincarnation.

Uncle Boonmee is inspired by the 1983 book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Buddhist abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti, who in turn based the book on the remembered experiences and reincarnations of a man named Boonmee. Along with elements from the book, Weerasethakul incorporated into the film memories of his own family (chiefly his father, who like the titular character, suffered from kidney failure) and bits of inspiration from old television shows and Thai comic books. The end result is yet another fantastically strange treat from one of the most original voices in contemporary Asian cinema.

The film follows kindly farmer Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) as he lives out his final days in a country house surrounded by dense wilderness. He is kept company by Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his sister-in-law, and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), his nephew, and has his medical needs taken care of by Jaai (Samud Kugasang), a migrant worker from Laos. As the days pass, the group encounters a range of unusual beings. Most memorably, there is an evening dinner table sequence early in the film in which the family is joined by the ghost of Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), Boonmee's long-deceased wife, and Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), his long-lost son who transformed into a red-eyed ape creature after mating with another member of the same species. Boonmee converses with his wife about what awaits him after death and summons memories of his previous reincarnations. Eventually, Huay leads Boonmee and the others to an ancient cave where the sick man was originally born in his first form. There, he prepares himself for what is inevitably to come. 

Uncle Boonmee is possibly Weerasethakul's most linear narrative to date, as it noticeably deviates from the very clearly-defined two-part structures of Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. While there is a portion towards the ending that relocates the narrative to urban spaces, the film is mainly set within the jungle and, a few isolated episodes aside, devotes most of its running time to Boonmee and those around him. Weerasethakul very much seems to be revisiting territory he covered in Tropical Malady - primarily that film's prolonged stay in the wilderness, which immerses main character Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and audience alike in a rich, sensory experience filled with thick vegetation, natural phenomena and the sounds of countless unseen insects and other creatures. Uncle Boonmee provides a similarly overwhelming ambience taken from the flora and fauna of the Thai country, and, like Tropical Malady, freely includes some more overtly fantastical creatures and elements - though this time, it could be said that Weerasethakul has truly outdone himself. At certain points during Uncle Boonmee, I was reminded of a quote Jonathan Rosenbaum uttered regarding the African film Yeelen (Brightness): "...should make George Lucas green with envy..." Well, Uncle Boonmee takes that idea a few steps further, as some of its inclusions seem directly influenced by Star Wars (namely the ape creatures, which seem like a mix of Wookies and Jawas). Yet the traces of influence aren't direct or glaring enough to be called rip-offs. Instead, they give the impression that the film is a dream being experienced by someone who has seen Star Wars a few too many times - the raw ingredients are there, but they have been re-invented and mixed in with the filmmaker's other preoccupations, ideas, memories and creative wishes. In fact, Weerasethakul himself is quite the big fan of science fiction, having read a number of the classic authors (Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury) in his youth. Many times (including the career-spanning talk he gave at the Bell Lightbox during TIFF, which I attended), he has mentioned his ambitious dream project: Utopia, which would ideally feature actors from old science fiction films and television series (Jane Fonda and the cast of the original Star Trek show among them), the remains of the starship Enterprise and an eerie, snow-covered setting (Weerasethakul quite understandably  associates the color white with science fiction sets and environments). Even if that film is never realized (the director worries that it would be too expensive), there are many fascinating sci-fi touches in his existing works that certainly indicate an interest in the genre.

Uncle Boonmee is a film to savor and celebrate for the way in which it continues its maker's ongoing fascination with and reinterpretation of storytelling practices. His methods can be challenging to those not used to his particular way of relaying narrative, but if you approach his works with an open mind, you will find a grand wealth of strange yet wonderful riches. Like Weerasethakul's previous works, Uncle Boonmee is piled with several scenes and moments that ask you to enjoy certain pleasures: a honey tasting in a sunny tamarind orchard; the eerie yet relaxed dinner table meeting between human, spirit and ape-man; a stunning passage set by a night-shrouded waterfall involving a princess, one of her servants and a talking catfish; an unexpected photo montage; the cave, glistening with constellations of minerals; a karaoke stage aglow with colorful lights. All of these things and more are presented in a welcoming tone of curiosity, sincerity and happiness, and the weaving, unexpected structure in which they are presented simply adds to the fun, fascinating quality of the film. 

There is so much more I could write about (including the interconnected quality of all of Weerasethakul's works, including Uncle Boonmee - for example, the actress Kanokporn Tongaram from Blissfully Yours seems to reprise her character in the newer film's final scenes), but I think I've said enough. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is indeed different and mysterious, and it certainly helps if viewers go into it with some familiarity with Weerasethakul's work and methods. But the experience it provides is surely one to be contemplated and cherished in equal measure, and I can't wait to partake in it once again.

I'll leave you with a slew of Weerasethakul-related goodies:

-the blog Ruthless Culture has some very good pieces on Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, but most worthwhile is a review on Syndromes and a Century that describes the unique approach to storytelling that the film and its director utilize, the literary tradition of said approach, and how the film goes about charting new ways in which cinema can be used to tell stories (and how critics should approach them).

-John Berra, editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and American Independent volumes and contributor to Electric Sheep, conducted a great interview with Weerasethakul for the latter in December 2009 that explores the Primitive project, the director's clashes with censors over Syndromes and that enticing Utopia film, among many other things. Check that out here!

-Finally, included below is a video featuring excerpts from the previously mentioned appearance Weerasethakul made at the Lightbox:

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