Top prize at Cannes
The Thai fantasy won top prize, the Palme d’Or, at the Cannes Film Festival 2010.
More experience than movie, this film doesn’t offer much plot or character development. It requires surrender to a very slow pace and the play of alternate realities.
Suffering from kidney disease, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, who is not a professional actor) has moved to an isolated home in the jungle where he runs a tamarind orchard.
Boonmee knows death is near because he is able to see his other lives clearly. His deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears at the dinner table one night, sensing that he will make his transition soon.
Living in mystery
What’s striking is that Boonmee’s elderly sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) can see and talk with the ghost too. There is an acceptance of mystery as magic, spirituality and everyday reality coexist.
Huay tells Boonmee, “Heaven is overrated. There is nothing there.” Existence is a journey with many wanderers.
Son returns, transformed
Boonmee’s son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) arrives next to explain his disappearance years ago. Following a ghost monkey with his camera, he was transfixed by the silent, black, Big Foot-like creature with glowing red eyes.
When he mated with one he became a ghost monkey himself. The group is alarmed by Boonsong’s appearance at first, but gradually accepts him. Boonmee is grateful to reconnect with his family.
Very slow and meditative, the film unfolds scenes from Boonmee’s animal lives. Each is a folk tale in itself.
When an aging princess sees her youthful reflection in a forest pool, a catfish (Boonmee), who she calls The Lord of Water, assures her of her worth and beauty. Their sexual encounter is extraordinary, a mystical union of nature and humanity.
Gifted director Weerasethakul, who asks Western interviewers to call him “Joe,” conveys a reflective and mischievous, Buddhist-inspired vision where all life is sacred and transitory.
“Cinema is a man’s way to create an alternate universe,” he says. His signature blend of surreal and ordinary mark his art house features Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Weerasethakul said that meditation for him is “like taking a shower for my mind. I had notes for Uncle Boonmee for years, but I couldn’t complete it.”
“I went to a temple near my home for 10 days straight and did nothing but meditate,” he said. “When I finished, my mind was clear, and I sat down and wrote the script.”
Regrets and gratitude
Boonmee regrets that he killed so many insects in this lifetime. During a walk in the forest, he shows Jen how to eat honey out of a hive. He offers to leave her his home and land. Jen refuses, dwelling on her distrust of the immigrant workers Boonmee employs.
Progress is measured over centuries, like stalactites on cave ceilings. A visit to a cave with ghosts past and present reminds Boonmee of the safety of a womb. Glittering bits of mica shimmer on a cave wall. Slowly the scene transforms into a night sky.
Uncle Boonmee is both simultaneous and linear. Weerasethakul often films in dim light, creating a semi-mournful, plodding mood.
Cinematographers Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Charin Pengpanich render seamless stylistic shifts amidst the gorgeous jungles of northeastern Thailand. Lush soundscapes of birdsong and crickets provide uplift.
A brief depiction of young Thai soldiers killing a communist seems to reflect Boonmee’s anxiety that he broke with his belief in non-violence during a lifetime in the Sixties.
What is the nature of life? Uncle Boonmee ends in meditative paradox. Jen is transfixed by images on a black and white television screen. She doesn’t want to go out, she tells Tong (who is now a monk with a cell phone).
Other Jens who dance and sing are alive too. Love life, the director suggests. (4 out of 5 stars)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 2010 / NR / 1 hour, 53 min
Cast Overview: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Thongaram, Samud Kugasang, Wallapa Mongkolprasert, Sumit Suebsee, Vien Pimdee
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Language: Thai with English subtitles