CIFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The year’s Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, has earned enthusiastic notices from critics around the world, testament to the arrival of its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul among the elite of world cinema. This Thai screenwriter and director has a refreshing point of view that pays tribute not only to his personal history and his country’s traditions, but also to the influence of the Chicago experimental film scene to which he was exposed while attending the film school of Chicago’s Art Institute. Festival goers who are unfamiliar with Weerasethakul’s films or point of view and who simply want to see what captured the top prize at Cannes are likely to be disappointed with this film. It takes more patience than the average film, and its magic realism isn’t of the twee variety most Americans are used to. Thus, I’ll pass on some advice Mexican director Francisco Athié gave me and the rest of the audience attending a screening of Vera, his psychedelic meditation on death: “It is like an LSD trip. If you go with it, you will have a good trip. If you do not go with it, you will have a bad trip.”

The film is set in a rural area of northern Thailand, where the title character Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has a successful farm. We see him out among his workers, one of whom shows him the pest problem they have in their tamarind grove. Boonmee is concerned about his farm and his workers, since he is in end-stage renal failure and has no heirs to whom to leave the farm. His sister-in-law Jen (Jengira Pongpas) has come up from Bangkok with her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to look after Boonmee. She worries about the immigrants he has employed to work on his farm, particularly a young man from Laos who handles Boonmee’s dialysis treatments: “Aren’t you afraid they will kill you and steal from you?” It’s obvious that Jen will not accept his offer to give her the farm, even with Boonmee’s promise that he will return as a ghost to help her out.

This promise isn’t as empty as a Western viewer might think. During a dinner the three are sharing, the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears. She says hello to her sister and nephew and later tends to Boonmee’s care after his Laotian helper returns to Laos to marry. Also joining them at the family table is Boonmee and Huay’s long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has become a monkey ghost. His dark form and glowing red eyes don’t seem to frighten anyone, and he tells his father he watched the search parties Boonmee sent out to look for him but didn’t dare return. He had set out into the woods to search for a monkey ghost he had photographed and ended up mating with it. Weerasethakul films the flashback—the darkroom where the photo was developed, Boonsong’s search in the forest, the search party—one of the films within the film.

The main film will be interrupted several times to tell different stories that may or may not relate to Boonmee’s past lives, including an absolutely mesmerizing story of a homely princess who mates with a catfish that quite reminded me of a mythic story of agrarian communities I heard from Joseph Campbell about a maiden who mated with an eel. It seems clear that Weerasethakul based this film not only on a book of past-life stories a monk collected from people he encountered, but also on universal mythic traditions. He also seems to chart the evolution of the human race, as Boonmee, followed by Jen and Tong, is led into a deep cave like a salmon to its birthplace and, there, expires. His funeral comprises the last leg of the film, which will see a worldly monk from Bangkok become spooked in the rural monastery and seek refuge in Jen’s hotel room, and one final surprise from Weerasethakul. Not only does the monk use the hotel shower in an extended sequence that vaguely echoes the homoeroticism of Weerasethakul’s previous films, but he also goes out to dinner with Jen, only to look back before they leave the room to see them still sitting on the edge of the bed watching television. Weerasethakul’s comment about cinema’s ability to have two “lives” occurring simultaneously (the real life of the actor, including his ability to watch himself on the screen while sitting in a theatre, and his character’s life) is a staple of experimental film, but it also refers to his examination of reincarnation.

Uncle Boonmee is the last part of Weerasethakul’s “jungle” trilogy (I’d call it a reincarnation or time trilogy myself) that includes Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. With each film, the director has grown more confident in mixing the worlds he has wanted to explore. The first film was clearly demarcated into two halves: one, a standard drama of a budding homosexual relationship and a fable about the encounter between a soldier and a powerful shaman who transformed himself into a tiger that suggests the consuming power of love. Syndromes and a Century looked at the continuity of human behavior and interactions and, thus, history’s tendency to repeat itself, as Weerasethakul explored his parents’ history in its first half and then updated it to modern times with the dialogue nearly the same in each half. With Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul has gone for the big score, showing how all times coexist—and certainly personal memory mixed with national history and the collective unconscious shows this to be true. The ambition of this film is enormous, and that Weerasethakul pulls it off with grace, humor, and beauty shows his is a talent that has finally matured. I sincerely hope audiences will dig deep and allow his connection with our symbolic and mythic dimensions to reach them.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives screens Sunday, October 10, 3 p.m., and Friday, October 15, 6:30 p.m. (rush tickets only). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/09/2010 to 4:06 pm

    “This Thai screenwriter and director has a refreshing point of view that pays tribute not only to his personal history and his country’s traditions, but also to the influence of the Chicago experimental film scene to which he was exposed while attending the film school of Chicago’s Art Institute.”

    “The first film was clearly demarcated into two halves: one, a standard drama of a budding homosexual relationship and a fable about the encounter between a soldier and a powerful shaman who transformed himself into a tiger that suggests the consuming power of love. Syndromes and a Century looked at the continuity of human behavior and interactions and, thus, history’s tendency to repeat itself, as Weerasethakul explored his parents‘ history in its first half and then updated it to modern times with the dialogue nearly the same in each half. ”

    You have really written here with authority and a real appreciation for this great talent, one of contemporary cinema’s true geniuses. At this point in time Marilyn, there is no film I want to see more than this one, as I revere this director as much as anyone. His TROPICAL MALADY is one of the great films of the new millenium, and both SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY and BLISSFULLY YOURS are masterworks. The ghost story elements, the flashback and film within a film certainly define this film, and the LSD analogy for this director (and film) seems dead-on.

    I can’t wait! I am jealous you saw this!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2010 to 4:29 pm

    Ha, Sam! I don’t really speak as an authority on Weerasethakul, but I certainly do know our city’s experimental tradition. I think this film is causing a lot of consternation to many moviegoers who don’t understand that its preoccupations are in accord with what experimental filmmakers explore pretty regularly. That is has a linear story that the interludes can skid on may be frustrating people who want the standard plot/narrative. Well, that’s too bad for them. I’m glad I saw it, and think it was a very appropriate winner at Cannes. I hope you get to see it soon.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 4:19 pm

    Weerasethakul is one of my favorite young directors, though so far I have only seen the first 2 of what you call here his “jungle trilogy.” I don’t follow the contemporary festival scene, and had no idea this film existed, but I’m very excited to see it now. Recently I covered his 2000 Mysterious Object at Noon in my Remembering the Movies series – have you seen that? I haven’t had the chance to check it out, but it sounds really eniticing – a series of interviews in which Weerasethakul (who apparently prefer to be called “Joe” at least in conversation with American reporters) asks random people to pick up the thread of an ongoing story and add their own twist. In the last year, I’ve been watching a lot of films from the previous decade (which I more or less sat out as it unfolded, focusing instead on exploring the past) and Asian cinema is emerging as the greatest highlight of the past ten years(with Latin American film close behind) – showing an imagination and fleet-footed intuitive comprehension of cinematic magic which few North American or European directors can muster anymore. Syndromes and a Century is definitely a top 10 of the 00s for me, can’t wait to see this one.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/10/2010 to 4:26 pm

    Yes, Joel, I own Mysterious Object at Noon, which I saw in a theatre when it came out. I thought it was a wonderful expression of shared creativity and reflected the concerns of the participants at that moment. Syndromes and a Century is very well done.

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