Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Seeing a Letter to Uncle Boonmee in New York

I'm in New York City. It was a sudden trip and I didn't expect to be here, so far from Bangkok.

As a coincidence, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, the short-film prequel to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning feature Uncle Who Can Recall His Past Lives is playing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of MoMA's ContemporAsian film series.

It's playing with three other Asian shorts: Madam Butterfly by Tsai Ming Liang, Cry Me a River by Jia Zhang-ke and Lost in the Mountains by Hong Sang-soo.

I've seen Letter a couple times before and I thought it would be nice to catch it again. Each time I see the 17-minute film, I notice something new. This time, I had just come in out of the wind and impending rain from West 53rd Street. And in the movie, I noticed it was windy, cloudy and about to rain. Having seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I can now relate better to the letter that Apichatpong has written to Lung Boonmee, and is having various men in the village of Nabua read it aloud. The village's haunted past of the anti-communist crackdown and residents having to flee into the woods seems more visceral. And of course, there's a monkey ghost and I understand that more.

Madame Butterfly is a solo act, both in front of and behind the lens. Tsai is holding the camera, following Pearly Chua around in a hectic and huge Kuala Lumpur bus station. She's trying to get a ticket back to her hometown but doesn't have enough money. She comes close to getting the ticket sellers to give her a disounted ticket, but she refuses their help and wanders off, allowing Tsai to further observe her despair. The short was produced as part of the Puccini Twenty project, but I'm not sure what exactly it has to do with the Puccini opera. However, I did think of the sing-song dialogue being like an aria, and the actress certainly fits the part of the sad diva, especially during the long final shot of her in bed, hugging her absent boyfriend's pillow and then pushing it away.

The last two, Jia's Cry Me a River and Hong's Lost in the Mountains were thematically similar, with three college friends visiting their professor.

But while Jia's was calm, friendly and full of wistful reflection by the three students feting their professor on his birthday, Hong's was dominated by over-the-top melodrama and drunkenness as a young writer visits her old professor and lover back in Jeonju. She also reunites with another friend and her old boyfriend, and, after a drunken night out sleeps with him too.

I'd actually seen Hong's before, at last year's Bangkok International Film Festival. It as part of the Vistors package of the Jeonju International Film Festival's Digital Short Films project. The MoMA audience seemed most entertained by this one.

The New York Times has a review of the shorts, which are playing until Thursday. See the Subway Cinema blog for showtimes.

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