Why I Love… #16: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Year: 2010

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Stars: Thanapat Saisaymar (Uncle Boonmee), Jenjira Pongpas (Jen), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Tong)

Genre: Surreal Film / Drama

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me.”

Right, I’ve done a few mainstream, or at least well-known films in a row now (Apocalypse Now, Stand By Me, The Thing), so it’s a suitable time to go wandering off the beaten path again. And they don’t come much further from conventional Hollywood filmmaking that this, the 2010 Palme D’or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. Fittingly then, I am now going to break with tradition and write a summary of everything that happens in the 103 minutes of this sublime film from Thailand. Spoiler alert then! Except… not really. Because Uncle Boonmee is very much about how things make you feel as opposed to what has actually happened.

Here we go…

An ox strays from its owner and stands in a wood. A creature with red eyes watches. Uncle Boonmee, his sister Jen, and nephew Tong, take a car ride through the country. Boonmee’s kidneys are failing and he will soon die. At Boonmee’s ranch they have dinner on the veranda, and are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife, and the creature with the red eyes, who turns out to be Boonmee’s son. He tells the tale of how he was transformed from a man into a “monkey ghost”. Jen takes a tour of the ranch. A rich woman, possibly a princess, is carried by servants through the forest until she reaches a waterfall. Her reflection in the water is not her own. She kisses a servant, but dismisses him. She encounters a talking catfish that she then has sex with. Jen, Tong and Boonmee’s spirit wife take him out into the forest to a cave, where he passes away. He has a funeral. A monk takes a shower in a hotel room and then goes to a karaoke bar, whilst simultaneously watching television with Jen and another girl.

That’s it. And it’s beautiful. One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. And the experience of watching it is quite unlike any other film I’ve had the fortune to encounter. When justifying its win at Cannes, judge Tim Burton reasoned that the film stood out because it “came from a different place”. He’s absolutely right. I don’t believe, right now, any Western filmmaker would be capable of making Uncle Boonmee. It is invested with another culture, with calmness, and a thoughtfulness that feels entirely alien when set beside 99.9% of modern cinema.

The first time I saw it, on a DVD bought purely on the buzz the film had received, and on how intrigued I was by the trailer, it affected me in a way no other film has before or since. As the credits rolled, I felt a profound peace and contentment. I laid back on my bed and didn’t move for over half an hour. I just laid there, looking but not seeing, letting my mind drift in abstractions. I felt completely relaxed. Such is the strange power of this film. It took conscious effort on my part to rise out of this blissful feeling and return to my day.

In order to write this piece I’ve watched it again, making four times I’ve seen it now. The feeling still comes, its effect quelled a little, yet still tangible. I try to pinpoint the cause, how a piece of film can change my mood so completely. A key to the mystery comes from the near complete lack of score (only a few subtle atonal drones here and there). With no music shaping the picture, we are left with the quiet, constant chirp of insects and quiet rustlings of the Thai countryside. The characters all speak softly and purposefully and there are long stretches of no dialogue. The film’s inner metronome ticks slowly, lulling the viewer into a different rhythm. The film is fundamentally slow, but it’s supposed to be. And so hypnotic is the effect that it takes me out of my petty, trivial first world dilemmas. Uncle Boonmee is a snapshot of life lived at a different pace, and it’s one that I’m loathe to leave behind.

The camerawork compliments this unhurried style equally. No one shot particularly draws attention to itself, and the film is largely comprised of static shots, but every set up is beautiful, simple, naturalistic. The lush countryside does much of the work, to be sure, but the extended takes and the lack of movement only accentuate the languid mood. Similarly, director Weerasethakul is uninterested in flashy effects, yet the low-tech approach actually works to his benefit. The ghosts that haunt the film appear in simple but effective slow fades, and the “monkey ghosts” remain one of the most striking creations of the new millennium. So gentle is the film they inhabit that they feel truly real and part of the piece.

Needless to say, this is not for everyone, and even if you’re inclined to give it a try I would add the proviso that there is a time and a place for Uncle Boonmee. It is not a film you’re going to want to watch any old time. You have to have the patience for it and the desire to be taken somewhere different by film, to have your conventions tested a little. It is likely best enjoyed alone, but I’ve not yet been brave enough to try sharing it with an audience. I’d like to have seen it in the cinema, but I fear the dark environment and the sheer relaxing effect of the film may have lulled me to sleep. And as I write this I realise I am not trying to advocate or even recommend Uncle Boonmee per se, but rather to reconcile my own strong attachment to this beguiling piece of work.

47 minutes into the picture you watch a man lie in a hammock looking at a treeline for nearly a full minute. In a sense, that says it all. This is a film about taking a step back, and shifting your perspective a little. A meditative experience.

“A visionary film… I was so swooningly captivated… Sublime… One of those rare films that contribute to the sum of human happiness” reads one of the five star quotes on the back of the DVD. No small claim.

I completely agree.

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