Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (or Boon-Ghost for short) was awarded the Golden Palm at last year's Cannes Film Festival by Tim Burton, who one must keep that in mind here as almost always the president of the jury indicates the film tastes in general. It's significant if for no other reason that I can't think of another time, at least in recent memory, when a film with any kind of supernatural or fantastical elements got the top prize. To be sure the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul - let's call him 'Pong' for short here for the sake of word space - has had other films at Cannes before, notably Tropical Malady (unseen by me, as well as his other four films). Why exactly this film who can say, except that the film, if nothing else, does exude a kind of hypnotic power on an audience. Whether people really gravitate towards 'hypnotic' (which can be a euphemism for 'meditative', a word that drive my wife away from any film with that descriptive) is on a case by case basis.
The film tries to defy the usual descriptions one tries to put for the usual narrative. In shortest 'logline' an aging ex-military man (he mentions, if only in passing, having killed many Communists "for country") is dying of kidney failure, and gets paid visits by his dead sister and monkey-man son, who appears with full fur and red-laser eyes, and has some 'flashbacks' to his past lives (or a life as I could recall). It's a leisurely paced film where Pong takes in his surroundings, and that of the characters seemingly taking up time in a world that has so much in it with life/lives. Mystery is set-up right at the start (or the enigma of the 'natural' world) with a cow who pulls away from the tree its tied to and wanders into the woods. A man goes after it (in rags) and the first appearance of the Monkey Man comes about. How much of this can be easily explained in the usual Western logic, after all?
|So like my dead relative come back as a ghost and I said 'yeah, whateva'|
I don't have a lot of information on the ways of Eastern-Transcendent-Animist logic, nor that of one of the stranger things that 'Pong' puts forward in the film in the big 'flashback/story'. A Princess has aged and is carried along through the jungle. She wants to regain her beauty, or perhaps just her youth, and she meets a man by a waterfall. They have an intimate moment. And then his "real" form is revealed: a catfish, who can restore youth. How this is done to her is an image (or, for the director breaking from his long takes a series of images) that will stick with me for quite some time; without revealing too much it is of a sexual nature that raised my eyebrow just a little (or maybe not sexual, maybe more like a, uh, possession sort of thing). What this has to do exactly with the main narrative I still don't know. But what is so impressive, or just fascinating, is how matter-of-factly the filmmaker presents this to us.
Indeed the whole family - most of them at any rate, one younger member remarks when seeing the Monkey-Man Son as "um, that's not a man, that's a monkey" to which the rest of the family basically says 'be nice!' - treats things like ghosts and spirits matter-of-factly, deadpan even. According to some articles I read on the director he takes influence not just from his own culture in Thailand, which can already be strange and exotic unto itself when it deals with the lands of the dead and supernatural, but that of Andy Warhol's use of long takes (to the point where it nears boredom) and such humor that seems almost flippant. This isn't to say he doesn't deal with the dramatic stuff with some taste either; a moment of brutality is off-set by how simply its shown, like when Uncle Boonmee is finally 'released' from this plane of existence by a moment of freedom in a cave. I'm sure there's also a touch of Big Fish here, which appealed to Burton on the Cannes Jury (or just seeing the Sasquatch figures with their red-laser eyes).
Much of the film is delightful in that quite, almost minimalist way that 'Pong' goes about the length of shots and ponders on the nature of existing on this plane and the next... and sometimes how long he ponders, not right away but eventually, can grow tiresome. It's hard not to appreciate what he's doing, and certainly his fans will recognize it from the start. But by the time that the characters get to a sequence involving walking in the jungle at night and at a cave, which is a prolonged sequence that leaves the audience in suspension (i.e. myself) wondering 'alright, not bad cinematography, dark, but decent, but where is this going?), it tried my patience.
Furthermore near the 'end' of the film, which has characters sitting in a motel room following the inevitable passing of the Uncle, watching TV as the Monk son takes a shower, this is dragged on to such a length that is not so much about creating an eerie mood, which is fine for the earlier jungle scenes or the scene at the dinner table, but about... I don't know what (albeit it ends with a kick-ass rock song that comes out of left field following a film with little music outside of ambient jungle noise, but why carp).
The pay-off of this scene is ultimately clever, and did keep me wondering when the film ended. I guess overall Uncle Boonmee, which has some quietly affecting acting from its leads- the kind where so little needs to be said, and little things in body language, however subtle like when the mother has to change Uncle Boonmee's kidney bag, are given gracious detail that a conventional US drama would bypass with quick cuts- is a success. I may not have gravitated to it as strongly as the people at Cannes, or other art-house audiences, but when it works best its a mesmerizing feat that is its own creation. That it's also dull in sometimes-equal measure perhaps comes with the territory; it will please or infuriate depending on how much you can take those "boring long movies with subtitles that don't make no sense."