Foreign Objects: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand)

By  · Published on May 11th, 2011

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives proved to be a divisive film in its commercial release following its surprise Palme d’Or win at last year’s Cannes. On the one hand, the strange film’s recognition exhibited a triumphant glimmer of hope for international art cinema in a world economy that hasn’t exactly been making room for ‘difficult’ art. On the other, for many the film has itself proved to be an alienating experience and was written off as a pretentious exercise that exemplifies the worst tendencies of art cinema.

While I found Uncle Boonmee to be a bizarre, wonderful, and ultimately entrancing journey very much worth taking, I do (to a degree) understand and sympathize with the film’s divisive reaction. There has been an ongoing debate about an aesthetic trend in international arthouse cinema known as “slow cinema.” Filmmakers from all over the world – Alexander Sokurov, Kim ki-Duk, Carlos Reygadas, Bela Tarr, and Weerasethakul himself, to name but a few – have (often following in the footsteps of Andrei Tarkovsky) made films of deliberate pace to various ends, especially those filmmakers who have a revisited thematic preoccupation with nature. While the slow aesthetic is still an affront to cinematic convention, in international arthouse terms it can be seen as a means of access and a shrewd economic move – an easily identifiable signifier of arthouse status that gives otherwise overlooked films, filmmakers, and countries a cinematic voice and a way to get into festivals.

While underrepresented nations getting to place their cinematic stamp visibly for the rest of the world to see is arguably never a bad thing, what has arisen from the slow cinema debate is speculation over whether some emergent slow filmmakers are employing the aesthetic “sincerely.” Such a debate has become especially present with particular films and filmmakers for whom the reasoning behind the still-rare aesthetic choice is unclear. For Weerasthetakul, a filmmaker for whom “meaning” and “intent” is often ambiguous throughout all his work, a lack of clarity in the eyes of many makes Uncle Boonmee come across as a moniker of high style without corresponding substance.

I respectfully disagree.

On the surface, Uncle Boonmee is about the final days of the terminally ill title character and how he comes to close his life. Boonmee is visited by ghosts and strange anthropomorphic spirits who are vessels for his loved ones who have already moved on. The film is so comprehensively occupied by spiritual themes of reincarnation that each creature we encounter – from a normal bull to strange “monkey ghosts” to a particularly talkative fish – that we quickly become trained to look at every creature as reasonably suspect; everything appears to be quite more than meets the eye. The film’s lyrically sparse opening scene establishes the world (and pacing) of Uncle Boonmee perfectly, as Weerasethakul’s patient camera is captivated by a bull who gets momentarily lost and while being observed by a striking, mysterious red-eyed country ghost.

Despite the film’s title, the various episodes that veer off what can only inaccurately be called the film’s “main plot” are never explicitly situated as Boonmee’s “past lives,” primarily because Weerasethakul’s distant camera is never firmly situated in the parameters Boonmee’s subjectivity: we sees ghosts not necessarily because he sees them, but because everybody can. The ambiguity of how these episodes are situated within the larger narrative (one involving a particularly memorable mystical encounter between a prince and the aforementioned talking fish) both add to the film’s layers of interest and depth (was Boonmee the bull or the monkey ghost at the film’s beginning, or was he neither?) while at the same time provide no routes for an easy or clear answer to the film’s many curious, esoteric mysteries that may not even be mysteries at all.

Weerasethakul is operating here in a specific liminal space between experimental artwork and arthouse filmmaking. Uncle Boonmee is a rather strange choice for the Palme d’Or as it’s not an autonomous film, but one part of a multifaceted, multimedia art installation project. One can’t help but feel that there are pathways to more fully understanding Uncle Boonmee elsewhere in Weerasethakul’s non-cinema-specific work, but these would undoubtedly lead to more ambigiuities wrapped up in more truly beautiful and visionary artistic frameworks. I’m not sure that I want easy answers or explanations for Uncle Boonmee, least of all because I’m not entirely certain the movie is asking any direct questions. Sometimes films are works of inexplicable expression, and sometimes ambiguity is just ambiguity. Sometimes it’s best to take the advice of Mr. Park from A Serious Man and simply “accept the mystery.” Some will and some won’t depending on their taste and expectations.

I don’t pretend to understand Uncle Boonmee, but it is a gorgeous, meditative film from one of contemporary arthouse cinema’s most challenging, unique, and original artists. When confronted with a film unlike any you’ve ever seen, it’s difficult to find the appropriate means by which to evaluate it.

Knowledge of Weerasethakul’s other art projects or previous films is by no means essential to experience Uncle Boonmee (no matter how much one engages with his work, there are still moments of his films that defy explanation), but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Any problems I had with Uncle Boonmee weren’t exactly problems per se, but were simply alterations in his mode of expression that defy his previous work. Uncle Boonmee is arguably Weerasethakul’s “most accessible” film, but for fans of his work (like myself), it’s quite surprising. He abandons the binary narrative structure that framed his last three features in favor of an episodic approach, he used 16mm film instead of the lustrous and layered 35mm that he used for his previous (and best) film Syndromes and a Century (2007), and his employment of popular music here is decidedly different and, in my opinion, less engaging.

So while Uncle Boonmee may be an introduction to Weerasethakul’s work for many, as a devotee of his work it was quite disorienting. As a result, while I was completely engrossed in many of Uncle Boonmee’s episodes, others broke the immersed engagement that slow cinema typically (and uniquely) allows in ways that no other film does. Nonetheless, Uncle Boonmee is a hypnotic film that is unlike anything you’ll see in this or any other year, and the fact that Weerasethakul is clearly continuing to challenge and explore only gives this already promising director even more promise.

On the Upside: Poetic and beautiful, it raises the standard on what constitutes a unique and original film.

On the Downside: Most will find this and Weerasethakul’s other films frustratingly inaccessible.

On the Side: If you’re interested in any of Weerasethakul’s previous work, I highly recommend Syndromes and a Century, which is a brilliant film and the director’s best to date.

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week looking for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent!