Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Sep 27, 2010
*Special to asia!

For curious, open-minded filmgoers out there in search of poetry and innovation in the seventh art, Uncle Boonmee will no doubt be a gem.

Keenly aware of the controversy surrounding its Palme d’Or win at Cannes this year, I went to watch Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives with a big question mark in my head. “'Uncle Boonmee', Palm of Boredom" was the headline in French daily Le Figaro, which described the film as  “dull, incomprehensible and hallucinatory”. The UK Telegraph, on the other hand, was bowled over, calling it “a film to inspire… a fabulous weave of magic”.

Will I, then, love or hate it?

At the end of the screening, I found that I still didn’t quite know. A.W. is famous for his “difficult” films, i.e., don’t expect to sit back and be entertained. Stylistically, Uncle Boonmee is similarly stripped of normal narrative conventions. For that I was prepared. But I wasn’t for the stories that followed: A dying man, Uncle Boonmee, has chosen to spend his final days in the Thai countryside; his family – dead wife and son return to take care of him – as ghosts, the latter a 6-foot-tall monkey with glowing red eyes. We switch to the tale of a disfigured princess who has an ecstatic encounter with a catfish under a waterfall. There is a trip through jungles to a womb-like cave. Towards the end, the spirits(?) of two characters leave their bodies, and go off to feast in a restaurant.

Fantastical? Certainly it would seem so, except that there are also frequent jolts back to reality that nudge at your sensibility. One character notes the harshness of the Thai sun and thankfully shares that she has applied UV cream (how Asian-female!). Then there are allusions to battles fought against Communism in the region (north-east Thailand), as well as the presence of many migrants from Laos and Cambodia. There is also a strange slide-show: a group of soldiers posing happily for a shot with a monkey ghost (one like Uncle Boomee’s son); in fact, many shots of soldiers in the jungle – a reminder of the country’s political woes?

I was mystified and fascinated. Intellectually the film offers many big and small bites for the cinephile to chew on, whether it’s the metaphysics of reincarnation and Thai mysticism (“Facing the jungles, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me”), the connections one can make with A.W.’s earlier movies (there was already an allusion to Uncle Boonmee in Tropical Malady), or the homage to the royal costume dramas on morning Thai television in the princess and catfish tale. One just needs to understand that, unlike a jigsaw puzzle, these bits do not necessarily fall into a coherent picture. After all, as A.W. has said about Uncle Boonmee, “It’s a cinematic jungle.” And indeed it is. Visually, the film is a sumptuous journey in sensuality, for A.W. depicts not just life in the countryside of north-eastern Thailand, he magnificently captures its colours, noises and air as well – watching the lush scenes, I felt myself being transported back to the thick humidity of the Southeast Asian tropics, and felt at home at once.

For the head and the senses, therefore, Uncle Boonmee has no doubt been a joyride. But for the heart? I’m afraid it just didn’t work for me. The chief protagonist and his story – facing death et al – left me cold, and A.W.’s choice of amateur actors somewhat backfired, especially for the personage of Huay, Boonmee’s ghost wife, whose rendition of her lines was mechanical, almost farcical. I do understand that that was intentional as A.W. has explained the influence of old Thai television films in which “the lines were whispered to the actors, who mechanically repeated them”. But knowing that does not discount the alienating effect of such performance.

For those curious, open-minded filmgoers out there in search of poetry and innovation in the seventh art, Uncle Boonmee will no doubt be a gem. And certainly Apichatpong Weerasethakul has done the Thais – and us Asians – proud with this imaginative, contemplative giant piece of experimentation that has brought film-making to yet a new high.


   uncle boonmee   


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or Loong Boonmee raleuk chat ลุงบุญมีระลึกชา

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee

caddy lee

A former financial and business journalist, Bernice Tang's other areas of interest include China, literature and the arts.