Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 113 minutes
Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one of the New York Film Festival’s most highly anticipated movies. It opens with a water buffalo named Keow at dusk. Keow is tied to a tree but escapes into the forest. One of Uncle Boonmee’s past lives? Perhaps. After Keow is retrieved, we see a creature with glowing red eyes in the dark. It’s a promising, enigmatic opening, but as it goes on, Uncle Boonmee becomes more literal and straightforward and for a film made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, that turns out not to be such a good thing.
The setting is northeastern Thailand, known for a poorer, harder life, and like all of Thailand, it sports a big animist culture. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a pleasant old widower who runs a moderate-sized farm employing many illegal immigrants from Laos. Boonmee is dying of kidney failure and being tended to by the Laotian Jaai (Samud Kusgasang). Boonmee’s sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his much younger cousin, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), are visiting. While they are having dinner together, the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), dead 19 years now, appears, and she is soon joined by Boonmee’s son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), a photographer lost 13 years ago when he pursued and mated with a monkey ghost, the furry creature with the red eyes, something which he himself has now become.
Uncle Boonmee, however, is not a horror film, but quite the opposite. Boonmee, Jen, and Tong are taken aback by the spectral presences, but they react matter-of-factly. In the Weerasethakul universe, folklore come to life is simply the unusual, not the impossible. Here, it’s used to explore the contrast between our spiritual and physical lives.
Like all of Weerasethakul’s films, Uncle Boonmee is leisurely paced. One early shot simply lets the camera roll while filming what’s outside the windshield of a moving car. Weerasethakul shows the entire procedure of setting up Boonmee’s peritoneal dialysis, a long walk around a cave, and Tong taking a shower. In the past, Weerasethakul could sustain these long takes through the beauty of his direction, but aside from the somber cave journey, it just feels like he’s marking time here.
Not helping is that the film, shot on super 16mm, looks murky and washed out blown up to 35. Why Weerasethakul would want to go back to 16mm after the gorgeous look of Syndromes and Century is a mystery. Uncle Boonmee, however, could use more mystery than that. The title makes sense of everything from the water buffalo to a vignette involving a deformed princess who engages in sex with a catfish. The ghosts explain themselves and the afterlife all too succinctly. The one truly bizarre moment, which involves dual realities, just seems gratuitously provocative and is hard to reconcile with the rest of the film in a meaningful way.
Still, what drew his fans to his past films will still draw them here – namely Weerasethakul’s compassion and gentle humor. Those are still in ample supply.