Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

  • Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Starring Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Wallapa Mongkolprasert
  • Limited release at SFX the Emporium, Bangkok, from Friday, June 25, 2010; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

That Apichatpong “Joei” Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year wasn’t much of a surprise.

The avant-garde artist and moviemaker had been groomed for the top slot ever since his first appearance on the Croisette in 2002, when he won the second-tier Un Certain Regard prize for Blissfully Yours (Sud Saneha). He won the third-place Jury Prize in the main competition in 2004 with Tropical Malady (Sud Pralad). And he even helped judge the entries in 2008.

But after seeing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึก ชาติ, Lung Boonmee Raleuk Chat), winning the prize does seem surprising. Compared to other Golden Palm winners, like Apocalypse Now or The Mission, Apichatpong’s movie is gentle and small.

Yet it has the power to conjure up those huge epics by sheer force of imagination. An independent production put together for around 20 million baht, Boonmee was shot on 16mm stock and uses old-fashioned special effects. It’s an antiquated film in an age of digital production and computer graphics.

And therein lies its magic. As Cannes jury head Tim Burton said, it’s “a beautiful, strange, dream”. And he too was surprised by it.

Apichatpong’s subconscious laid bare, Boonmee recalls the filmmaker’s past life, growing up in the 1970s and '80s, watching movies in a Khon Kaen theatre, as well as TV dramas, and poring over comic books.

It’s also inspired by a Buddhist monk’s sermon booklet, Phra Sripariyattiweti's A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives, written in 1983. Cinema and spirituality combine to produce the supernatural.

Boonmee is different from Apichatpong’s previous works, which had elliptical qualities that told abstract stories. Here, the story is as fractured as ever, but the narrative is clearer, with charming comic touches.

Nephew Tong and sister-in-law Jen – Apichatpong’s long-time players Sakda Kaewbuadee and Jenjira Pongpas – take the audience by the hand on this weird odyssey, going to visit the terminally ill uncle (Thanapat Saisayma) on his farm in the Thai Northeast.

He’s dying of kidney disease and wants to be surrounded by his loved ones. More folks turn up than he bargained for.

At supper one night, the family is taken aback when a woman fades in and takes up an empty chair at the table, her translucence becoming solid. It’s Boonmee’s late wife Thuy (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk).

Then a big black apeman with red glowing eyes mounts the stairs and takes another empty chair. This monkey ghost is Boonmee’s long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong).

Boonmee’s Lao labourer (Samud Kugasang) comes into the room, assesses the oddball collection of dinner guests and says, “I feel like I’m the strange one here.”

And it gets even more bizarre.

The story goes back to ancient times, with a princess (Wallapa Monkolprasert, who walked the Cannes red carpet with Joei) being carried on a palanquin through the forest. She has a date in a waterfall pool with a talking catfish whose whiskers tickle her privacy.

Earlier, a water buffalo snorts, pulls its rope free and runs into the woods.

Which one is Boonmee? Even the uncle himself isn’t certain.

He is drawn deeper and deeper into the forest, a mystical force guiding him to a crystal cave, his birthplace in his first life, whatever it was. In his dying throes he wonders if bad deeds he did as a soldier – tying this film into Apichatpong’s Primitive art project on a 1960s anti-communist crackdown in a rural village – are the reason for his karma.

“What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open, but I can’t see a thing,” he murmurs.

But we can see. Thanks to unprecedented interest in Joei’s prize-winner, he’s made it possible for Thailand to be the third country on the planet to witness the subtle power of Uncle Boonmee. Usually Thai audiences wait a year or more for Joei’s films, and until now, not so many people really cared.

Things have changed, though. His last movie, Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat) was censored, with the culture controllers saying scenes of doctors drinking whisky and a monk playing a guitar were inappropriate. The harsh censorship galvanised the art-film community.

Though the authorities still censor and ban movies, there’s now a ratings system in place, with Boonmee okayed for viewers age 15 and up.

Like in Syndromes, there’s Sakda in monk’s robes again, doing inappropriate things, but this time someone tells him he’s wrong.

And perhaps in a shout-out to the censored Blissfully Yours, three people sit on a bed, including the Blissfully lead actress Kanokporn Thongaram. But they're just sitting there. It's natural.

You be the judge. Watch it and insert your own past life or long-ago movie-going experience into the equation.

With the monkey ghost and the princess, I couldn’t help but think of 1977's Star Wars, with Boonmee as a sort of doomed Darth Vader. Not sure how the talking catfish fits in, though.

Apichatpong says Star Wars likely wasn’t an influence. The monkey ghost came from an old comic. “Or maybe Planet of the Apes,” he says.

(Cross published in The Nation, xp section, Page 3B, June 24, 2010)



  1. I would love to see this film on the big screen but there is one thing that puts me off. Whenever I've seen a movie which demands some concentration from the audience, or there is a quiet period in the film, Thais always start to chat to each other, make phone calls, etc The only thing which seems to keep their attention are special effects movies like Transformers (the dumbest kind of Hollywood trash) or nonsense slapstick comedy.

    Apichatpong films remind me of Krzysztof Kieslowski or Theo Angelopoulos. They demand your attention and intelligence. So unfortunately I will be buying Uncle Boonmee on DVD and watching it by myself.

  2. People everywhere are inconsiderate jerks. But don't let them keep you from seeing a movie that's meant to be seen in the cinema.

    So go see it, now! Who knows when you'll have another chance? And you might actually have a good experience.

    It will likely be some time before Boonmee is released on DVD. When the time comes, you can buy it and watch it.

  3. I've finally seen it. I need to go through it over and over again to get the whole film. I don't think I can, actually. Maybe whoever watched Uncle Boonmee needs his way, his patterns, his past and his memories to understand something deeply hidden inside it. I dreamed of Uncle Boonmee last night. I'm still thinking of it. I'll never forget it.


Please, no questions or comments about where to download movies or subtitle files.

Please read the FAQ about Thai films on DVD before asking about where to find a Thai movie on DVD with English subtitles.

Make your comments pertinent to the post you are commenting on. For off-topic comments, general observations or news tips, consider sending an e-mail to me at wisekwai [ a t ] g m a i l [d o t ] c o m.

All comments are moderated. Spam comments will be deleted.