Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Short Take: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the winner of the Palme d’or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is probably the most notable film from Thailand yet released in the West. It provides an intriguing mix of the everyday and the magical. The title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a beekeeper and orchard grower who knows he will soon die from kidney failure. His sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) and his nephew (Sakda Kaewbuadee) travel to his farm to be with him in his last days. The three are soon joined by the ghost of his late wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong). They also encounter Boonmee’s long-missing son (Geerasak Kulhong), who was transformed years earlier into a glowing-eyed monkey spirit. Weerasethakul treats Boonmee’s impending death as a time of reunion with the mystical aspects of nature. The setting for Boonmee's epiphanies is the nearby forest at night. His visions take him from memories of his spirit’s prior incarnations to the wondrous cave where his soul was born. The film is at its best in these parts, which are compellingly eerie and fantastic. (Boonmee’s memory of himself as a princess seduced by a water god is as outlandish a scene as one will encounter in movies.) Unfortunately, the sections depicting Boonmee in his daily life are uneventful and inexplicably drawn out. They don’t provide an adequate counterpoint to the mystical passages. And the film’s epilogue, in which the nephew becomes a monk and finds his body and spirit out of sync with each other, is a real head-scratcher. But as unsatisfactory as some of the film is, one may find one can’t get it out of one’s head. The cinematography--elegantly dark and painterly in the forest scenes--is by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The film is based on the novel A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by Phra Sripariwattiyetti.

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