26th 09 - 2010 | 4 comments »

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)

30th 05 - 2008 | 8 comments »

Nang Nak (1999)

Director: Nonzee Nimibutr


By Marilyn Ferdinand

You know a film renaissance is taking place in a country when one of its indigenous products outgrosses one of Hollywood’s juggernauts. That’s exactly what Nang Nak did to Titanic in Thailand, showing that the Thai New Wave was alive and real. Nonzee Nimibutr tapped a popular and enduring legend that had already received numerous film and television adaptations; from that standpoint, he was ensuring he had a built-in audience. But the huge popularity of his film in Thailand spread beyond the country’s borders. What ignites this version of the legend and gives it universal appeal are the deeply felt performances of its principal actors, Intira Jaroenpura and Winai Kraibutr, as Nak and Mak, a wife and husband who share a great and enduring love.

The film is set in the late 1860s in a rural area near Bangkok. Mak has been called to war. He tries to comfort his grief-stricken wife Nak as a row boat paddled by his friend comes down the stream on which they live to take Mak away. Nak clings to Mak as he arises and moves toward the stairs that lead to a small pier. She reluctantly lets go of him and plaintively calls his name as he climbs into the boat and slowly disappears from view.


The film moves forward to show the separate situations of Mak and Nak. Mak, in the middle of a battle, looks for his friend Prig, whose voice he thinks he hears. Gunfire and strewn bodies lay in his path. Injured himself, he passes out near Prig, who is near death. Coming to, he urges Prig to hang in there, but Prig’s eyes roll up in his blood-spattered head. Mak yells in a panic for the medics to come to his aid. From this point on, Mak’s injury will put him near death’s door for many months.

Meanwhile, Nak is revealed to be pregnant. She learns of Mak’s condition, but is unable to go to him. Worried, she goes to the head of the Buddhist temple in her town. He tells her that Mak’s good fortune remains strong and will help him through his illness. Nonetheless, she asks him to pray for Mak’s recovery. As she tends to the family farm, she feels a sudden spasm of pain. The town’s midwife is called, and Nak begins a very arduous birthing. At the same time as Nak goes through her ordeal, Mak has terrible dreams, ending with a horrifying image of Prig’s face at the time of death. He awakens with a scream, as Nimibutr cuts to Nak’s scream as the midwife cuts her vagina with a piece of glass to allow more room for her baby’s head to pass.


Eventually, Mak recovers from his illness and sets off for home. The stream on which he pushes his boat is marked with signs of decay and destruction. However, when his own home comes into view, Nak is standing on the pier. They call each other’s name, this time with joy. Mak discovers that his wife has borne a son, Dang. Nak is especially protective of Dang, keeping him with her always, even as she goes off to perform an errand Mak intended to do. Nak and Mak would seem to be off to a good life together, but strange warnings from their neighbors and unexpected problems at home—rats below the house, an unexpected break in a formerly solid rung on the front steps, strange forebodings of separation that keep Nak up at night—threaten their happiness.

If you know the story of Nang Nak (a term that has become synonymous in Thailand with “faithful wife”), you know what’s troubling Nak and the village. If you don’t know the story—as I did not—Nimibutr plants disturbing scenes throughout, from the horrifying image of the dead Prig to tense close-ups of Nak shaving Mak with a straight razor, to guide the viewer toward the truth. As the film progresses, the villagers reveal the secret that some viewers may already have suspected.

I found myself both anxious and saddened by the fate that was bound to befall the loving couple. In the interests of suspense, I won’t reveal some of the events that mix traditional folk beliefs and remedies with Buddhism in a tantalizing look at Thai culture. Just know that Thailand was revealed to me in richer detail, with brief and stunning fixed shots of natural settings announcing the passing of time through the changing of the seasons as well as the strength of culture that has helped the story of Nang Nak persist. The story is the strength of this film and carries it through some of the rudimentary acting and occasional clumsy editing. I was a bit baffled by the poor English subtitles, but never lost.


Most affecting of all was Intira Jaroenpura as Nak. A willowy actress of subtle beauty and grace, Jaroenpura imbues Nak with a poignancy that is very moving. Her first separation from Mak is grudging and helpless; her last, heartbreaking but filled with a kind of acceptance. It is said that a Nang Nak actually lived and that a relic of hers, inscribed with story and prayer, has been passed down from one Buddhist monk to the next until it passed out of the monastery, never to be seen again. The relic has become a symbol of eternal love. While some Thai fear the legend of Nang Nak, Jaroenpura restores the emotional core of the story with power, beauty, and sympathy.

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