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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010,Thailand)


Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul    Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee

I’m not familiar with a lot of Thai cinema. In fact, if you take Tony Jaa out of the equation the only Thai films in my collection (and in fact that I am consciously aware of seeing) are the frankly demented Tears Of The Black Tiger and one third of the anthology piece Three Extremes 2. While I’ve seen enough Japanese, Chinese and Korean cinema to adequately assess what I’m likely to get out of a given film, Thai cinema remains something of an unknown quantity for me. On the strength of my previous, extremely limited, forays into the country’s films I expected Uncle Boonme to be a little bit unorthodox. I wasn’t disappointed.

There is little point in trying to explain the story in any great detail. It’s not that kind of film. Loosely speaking, it as about Boonmee, an old man with a farm in the mountain jungle of Thailand who is struggling with liver illness that looks set to end his life. His sister in law and her son come to help him out and are stunned by strange occurences in Boonmee’s house. Part drama, part ghost story it’s less about following a narrative and more about feeling and experiencing. Steeped in the folklore of the region, Boonmee looks back on his life (and indeed past lives) as he philisophically prepares himself for his inevitable death, hastened by the failure of his kidneys.

It is a strange film and I mean that as the highest compliment. Hypnotic and mysterious it makes itself felt with the beauty of its images and the intimacy of the character’s plight, underscored with the constant chattering of the jungle’s insects and the occasional thunderous rumbling of the many spirits that surround Boonmee and his family. There is no musical score, only the sounds of nature and supernature and the gentle, quiet conversations between Boonmee and his friends, workers and relatives. The effect is utterly mesmerising. So too is the indescribably beautiful cinematography. Wonderfully framed shots are masterfully edited and you get the sense that Weerasethakul knew from the very beginning exactly what the film was going to look like when it was finished.

Its a film very much rooted in a sense of mortality but mortality tempered with a belief in an existence after death. Boonmee is very accepting of his fate, quietly preparing his earthly concerns for his inevitable demise whilst reflecting on the life, or indeed lives, he has led and the quality of the karma he has acquired as a result. Rather than being depressing it is actually quite uplifting and although Boonmee’s plight is undeniably sad his experiences over the course of the story are full of warm joy and benevolence. Mankind’s relationship with nature is also brought to question, Boonmee has not always been a farmer although he seems to take pleasure and solace in his tamarind orchards and beehives. There is a tranquil harmony that suggests that perhaps he can indeed recall his past lives as animals roaming the jungle.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives defies genres and conventions. I think the best, perhaps the only, way it can be adequately described is by its own existence. Dreamlike and serene, it’s a peculiar meditation on life that is aesthetically and emotionally beautiful.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 08/04/2011 21:54

    This film recently had a very limited run in one cinema here in Melbourne and now, having read your review, I am kicking myself for not having gone to see it. It sounds like it would have been beauitful to have seen on the big screen

    • 08/04/2011 22:04

      I missed the chance to see it at the cinema too. I watched it on Bluray – the transfer is gorgeous – but would have loved to experience it at the cinema, especially with the way it’s been scored with ambient sound rather than music. Bloomin’ lovely.

  2. 01/09/2011 18:22

    Me, too. It was only in the theatre here for about a week. I’ve been dying to see it since it came out.

    When am I ever going to find time to catch up on my watching?! Having hurricane Irene messing with our power and cable hasn’t helped any.

    • 01/09/2011 22:38

      There is a horrific moment in everyone’s life when they have to accept that there are many more minutes of running time of brilliant cinema than there are likely to be minutes left in one’s own life. How to decide what to watch and what to let slip past is impossible to quantify. Hopefully my reviews will help weed out some of the more heinous wastes of time (or rather, life). I would strongly recommend you make time for this one though.

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