The following is a reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival.
After his breakout hit “Syndromes And A Century” (well, as much as a severely niche arthouse film could be called a breakout) Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” We saw this film on the tail end of a long four-movie day, which probably wasn’t the best way to experience Weerasethakul’s meditative film, but regardless, it quietly emerged as one of the most distinctive and pretty much unreviewable films of the festival (Jean Luc-Godard‘s “Socialisme” aside).
Firmly placing the “art” in “arthouse,” judging ‘Uncle Boonmee’ in terms of “good” or “bad” is simply irrelevant. Much more than the sum of its parts, it’s a film that exists completely in layers and metaphors. Punctuated with dry humor and expressive cinematography, the picture unfolds exquisitely but requires and demands an audience willing to meet it halfway. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the titular uncle who, suffering from kidney failure, is visited by the ghost of his dead wife and by his long lost son who returns in a monkey-man like form not unlike Chewbacca with glowing red eyes. With Uncle Boonmee contemplating the end of this life, and wondering if his illness is the karmic result of killing communists and bugs, he decides to travel back to the place of his birth.
But again, the plot here is merely just a very loose thread for Weerasethakul to contemplate the state of his country. But don’t be misled; this isn’t “Fair Game” by any stretch. With the politics only referred to obliquely, ‘Uncle Boonmee’ stretches out with a multitude of beautiful, confounding, fascinating long shots and sequences: a car driving down the road; a catfish mating with a princess; a monk taking a shower; people sitting in a restaurant as karaoke music blasts; an ox tied to a tree freeing itself — Weerasethakul evokes feeling and mood but it does require any potential viewers to be up to the task at hand.
At a point early in the fim, a character who stumbles upon Uncle Boonmee sitting at a table talking with his dead wife and monkey-man son says, “I feel like the strange one here.” And certainly, at various points throughout the film, audience members may feel the same way. ‘Uncle Boonmee’ isn’t the kind of film one can recommend, discuss as a ‘must-see’ or box it up into a genre. If you’re already familiar with Weerasthakul and his work and the very particular arthouse world it inhabits, you already know that you’re going to track it down. If not, we can only say that if you do carve out time to see the film whether or not you ‘like’ it (again, a term that seems somewhat insignificant in attributing to the film) highly depends on how willing you are to test your cinematic horizons.
As for our feelings on the film, while it’s unlike anything we’re likely to see this year, it’s also something we’re pretty sure we’re never going to watch again. We valued the experience and admired the film, but the work required to put into ‘Uncle Boonmee’ makes it a difficult film to embrace fully — at least on the first go round. Would subsequent viewings firm up and/or clarify our thoughts on the film? Perhaps. But as the film concerns memory, we think the best respect we could pay the film would be to let it continually evolve and shift in our own memory as over time, our own feelings and experiences come to bear on what we’ve seen, allowing its most mysterious elements to come to the fore. Enigmatic and elegant, “Uncle Boonmee” is another indescribable entry by one of cinema’s most unique voices. [B+]