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CANNES REVIEW | Impenetrable Fantasy: “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

CANNES REVIEW | Impenetrable Fantasy: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has made a career out of directing movies that seem like dense visual riddles, matching poetry with mysterious cinematic designs. However, while his earlier features often felt primarily energizing as intellectual exercises rather than creative pursuits, his latest work — “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” — takes the identical approach into the delightful realm of fantasy.

The story begins with the image of an ox, the first of many animal references that deepen its mythological dimensions. Over the course of the nearly two-hour excursion, the ghost of a man shows up reincarnated as an ape, and a catfish apparently performs cunnilingus on a woman in the jungle. Those moments provide the strangest diversions, but “Uncle Boonmee” replicates that weirdness with a melding of poetic and comic forces, yielding an experience defined by sheer ingenuity.

Weerasethakul’s titular character is a middle-aged man living in the forest and dying from an illness. One evening, during a visit from his nephew, Boonmee also gets met by the ghost of his long-dead wife and missing son, that aforementioned monkey man. They discuss the sense of displacement that death brings them, marrying the strange tone to seriously lyrical observations of mortality. But Weerasethakul doesn’t take the scene any more seriously than we do: Another living person joins the table and takes in the eclectic group, concluding, “I feel like I’m the strange one here.”

The magic of “Uncle Boonmee” is that it makes all viewers feel like the strange ones. Like Weerasethakul’s other movies, the imagery contains lushness even though the context never moves far beyond impenetrably difficult rationalizations. But just as Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century” used its full two hours to reach a sense of full-bodied purpose — time was its greatest asset — “Uncle Boonmee” lights up with marvelous imagery and invention from its very first scene. Weerasethakul deals with folklore, memory and death in a wonderfully playful manner that’s moderately accessible and cryptic at the same time. Guided by forces as otherworldly as his plot, the filmmaker turns narrative confusion into his greatest conceit.

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Comments

Lucas

I dunno man, this movie is way, way out there. I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person with an open mind and a taste for cinema. I dig me some Jarmusch and Herzog, Antonioni, Korusawa, which I figure puts my tolerance for movie weirdness and slowness somewhere up near the 90th percentile. But I spent about 95 minutes of this movie feeling monumentally confused and, yes, BORED. I was doing my best to stay with it until the fish went down on that princess lady, and then it was “Good night Irene.” I mean I watched the whole thing but never got as close to thinking I had any idea what was going on as I did just before I realized that catfish was on the good foot, doing the bad thing. Is that a reference to Hammer of the Gods – the Led Zeppelin book? I honestly can’t think of anything coherent that this film is trying to say. I guess art doesn’t have to say anything coherent to be art, but what’s the point of saying anything unless it communicates a discernible idea? We may as well all walk around spouting gibberish at each other, crapping in our hands and throwing it at the wall, am I wrong? Also that review up there sounds real clever but in an annoying way. Had to go dust off the ol’ dictionary. Maybe I’m just not smart or artistic enough to get all this, but dayum! I wish I had my $12.50 and 2 hours back.

Eric

The hostility of some of these comments is amazing. “Sacrilegious”? “Boriest”? A “rotten screenplay”? If you’d rather not be challenged by film, I’m sure there are lots of options, some with explosions and everything, at your local multiplex. Have at it. But disliking this film because it isn’t a roller-coaster ride of thrills and chills is inane, and says more about you than the movie.

This film is wildly idiosyncratic. I agree that Boonmee’s pace is deliberate, sometimes to a fault, but I wasn’t bored. What the Cannes jury saw, I think, is an original and distinctive piece of cinema that challenges the viewer to be open to the experience. It’s clearly not a commercial film intended for a mass audience, but rather a lyrical series of tone poems. I very much enjoyed the juxtaposition of the mundane and the magical, and how the film challenged perceptions of Asia/Orientalism in general, and Thailand in specific.

Weerasethakul is an artist, and seemingly made no concessions to audience expectations with Uncle Boonmee. You’re entitled to dislike the film for what it is, but to dismiss it as nothing but “bad gorilla outfits” is nuts. (The makeup on the monkey ghost at the dinner table is top-notch, incidentally).

Dom

SPOILER: IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO WASTE 10 DOLLARS AND MORE IMPORTANTLY 2 HOURS OF YOUR LIFE,

DO NOT GO NEAR THIS MOVIE. It is the most piece of crap excuse of a movie EVER.

ShaowPunch

This is a formal declaration of war against all the critics in the world that led innocent movie lovers to a sacrilegious piece of crap movie that’s Uncle Boonmee ……
Seems like the director embarked on a mission to kill all the people that watched this movie with his immeasurable stupidity and infinite aesthetic depravity.
Statutory warning to all the adventurous movie lovers out there who are daring to watch this piece of smelly crap:: this movie(don’t know why it’s even called that) will rob you of your zeal to watch movies for a long, long time to come….don’t watch it. And this one is straight from the heart… the director and all the critics drooling over this crap should be banished from the world of cinema….. PERIOD!!

Miguel

I fully agree with Matthew B and Brandond. One of the boriest films I ´ve ever seen in my life. I can not understand what the hell the Jury of Cannes saw in this film. It is not a matter of slowness. Bergman, Tarkovski or Dreyer are among my favourite directors . “Uncle Boonmee” is a really, really bad film in my opinion. Maybe I would only save the first 15 minutes (the dinner), but that´s all. Ludicrious dialogues, poor fotography poorly illuminated, neverending scenes (the monk taking a bath, the cow, the camara in hand escenes inside the cove…). I left the theater 5 minutes before the end. My wife has not forgiven me yet for not leaving it much earlier!

Matthew B

Talk about a hype machine! This movie simply does not deserve the attention people have been giving it. To think that this movie earned a higher award than Biutiful is basically tragic.

It took me every effort not to walk out of this film, but I struggled to the end. I left the theater completely unrewarded.

Consider yourself warned: this movie is incredibly boring.

BrandonJudell

Truly one of the worst films of the year. Pure fodder for pseudo-intellectual cinephiles. A young man has sex with the monkey spirits and winds up walking around in a bad gorilla outfits with red lights for eyes?

Mr. Kohn writes: “The magic of ‘Uncle Boonmee’ is that it makes all viewers feel like the strange ones.” I only feel strange when I read reviews praising a work like this that the critic only pretends to understand.

What the hell does this mean: “Guided by forces as otherworldly as his plot, the filmmaker turns narrative confusion into his greatest conceit.”

“Narrative confusion” usually means a rotten screenplay unless the film is screened at The New York Film Festival and Cannes. Get this man an editor who asks questions.

eco_bach

‘the way it conveys beauty through film form, rather than emphasizing film mechanics’/
ok, sorry, expectatuons were perhaps too high, but this personal work left me both bored and confused.

eric.kohn

@Brant I have always admired Weerasethakul’s movies, but his earlier efforts struck me as emotionally cold, mainly formalist exercises intriguing for the unique ways they told their stories. “Bonmee,” on the other hand, opens with strikingly lyrical imagery and maintains it in virtually every shot. Its dominant appeal is one that I experience mainly for the way it conveys beauty through film form, rather than emphasizing film mechanics (not a creative achievement but a mechanical one) first and foremost. Sorry if this was unclear.

eric.kohn

@Brant I have always admired Weerasethakul’s movies, but his earlier efforts struck me as emotionally cold, mainly formalist exercises intriguing for the unique ways they told their stories. “Bonmee,” on the other hand, opens with strikingly lyrical imagery and maintains it in virtually every shot. Its dominant appeal is one that I experience mainly for the way it conveys beauty through film form, rather than emphasizing film mechanics (not a creative achievement but a mechanical one) first and foremost. Sorry if this was unclear.

brant

“…while his earlier features often felt primarily energizing as intellectual exercises rather than creative pursuits,intellectual exercises rather than creative pursuits”? What? This is ludicrous. What on earth does that mean? They didn’t feel like creative pursuits? How can something not “feel” like a “creative pursuit,” let alone that Apichatpong is clearly “creatively pursuing” film’s aesthetics and his own dreamscapes and philosophies better than anyone in the world right now.

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