Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Grade: 94 (A)

Every once in a while, a strange, sometimes confounding film makes its way to the screen, daring the world to try and figure it out. 2010’s Palme D’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is such a film. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (affectionately known as “Joe”) spent the 2000s beguiling audiences with films such as Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, but a real breakthrough came with his most recent oddity. Uncle Boonmee deals with death in strange and surreal ways, but it is never overwrought, frightening, or depressing, but rather a bittersweet ode to life itself.

Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a man dying from kidney failure. His sister-in-law/caretaker travels with him to the country, where he can die in peace. There, he begins to have strange visions: his dead wife appears in a ghostly form, and his long lost son appears in an odd, Chewbacca-like form (it’s even stranger than it sounds). Oddly, no one reacts with terror or disbelief, but rather curiosity and interest in sharing life stories. His wife’s ghost eventually helps with Boonmee’s kidney dialysis. The film also skips back and forth between the main story and Boonmee’s past lives before his current incarnation. One involves his life as a cow. In another, a scarred princess has a strange encounter with Boonmee in the form of a talking catfish (again, it’s even stranger than it sounds). It all culminates in Boonmee’s final journey into a cave where “he was born”.

Is Boonmee dreaming or hallucinating? Are these things really happening? Can the others really see what Boonmee sees, or is he taking them along with the ride for his own comfort? Are his conversations with his wife just a part of his psyche? Is the cave death and birth? Here’s the answer: it doesn’t matter. No matter which events are real and which are not (or whether it can be distinguished), the film remains a beautifully quiet meditation on life, death, and dying. Above all else, it is important to know that this film is not necessarily meant to be totally unlocked.

At the Cannes Film Festival, Jury President Tim Burton likened the film to “a beautiful strange dream”, and it should be experienced as such. The film is challenging, no doubt, but the viewer that gives himself over to the movie will be caught up in its mix of the literal and the surreal, reality and dreams. A line of comparison can be drawn to the film’s final moments: after a quiet, contemplative 100 minutes, the song “Acrophobia” by Thai one-man-band Penguin Villa plays. Whether or not the words are clear is not important; the feeling is unmistakable.

One last thing worth considering: Weerasethakul has stated that the film is, in part, about the death of film. Each reel is shot on a different stock or in a different style (realism mixed with costume drama, for example). The film is, in part, Weerasethekul’s exploration of the “past lives” of film before its death (“Joe” has lamented that celluloid has mostly given way to digital filmmaking). If so, it makes for a beautiful love letter to film, film history, and anyone to whom it ever mattered.

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