Theatrical Review: UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Matthieu Ly
If there has ever been a film to play polar opposite to a Hollywood blockbuster, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul may have just made it.
After hitting the scene with the masterful SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, the director is back once again with his latest film, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. The Palme d’Or winning feature may have an absurdly surreal title, but after finally getting a chance to lay eyes on this wondrous picture, it truly lives up to both of those adjectives. It’s also both the year’s first must-see picture, and one of the hardest ones to recommend.
UNCLE BOONMEE has a relatively simple plot when looking at the structural level. The film follows our titular lead, on his death bed after suffering from kidney failure. As he slowly nears death, he becomes haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, and his estranged son who is now best described as an arthouse take on Bigfoot. Like a more haunting and less cuddly Chewbacca, just with blood red eyes and a penchant for philosophizing.
However, this does the film ultimately no justice, as it’s much more than a plot. It’s much more than just a synopsis. Playing as a sly allegory for the political state of his native Thailand, director Weerasethakul plays as the film’s true star.
The film truly shines in its moments of silence or quaint surrealism. There are many beats within this film that offer the viewer nothing more than one or two characters silently or quietly contemplating life and the futility of it. Particularly near the middle of the film, when the falling action (if there is any in this otherwise Bergmanian meditation) begins to tumble down, the film simply lingers on people, bodies or faces and is a truly haunting experience. It is this slow boil below the surface that plays the most interesting part of the experience of watching this film.
Best described as an Ingmar Bergman film directed by David Lynch, UNCLE BOONMEE is a tough film to truly draw a comparison to. A look at a man coming to terms with his impending death, and the lives that he’s had a chance to live while on this earth, the film is as much a meditation on life, as it is a meditation on who has control over it. Deciding to head back to his birthplace, our lead, Boonmee, does so after pondering just why he’s been stricken down like he has. Is it wholly his fault? Is someone taking revenge for the happenings in the past lives of Boonmee? It’s this conceptual discussion that makes UNCLE BOONMEE the masterwork of subtlety that it truly is.
Visually striking, the film takes these haunting themes, and gives the viewer not only a fully realized world to place them in, but one so breathtaking and poetic, that any single frame of this film can be considered a piece of art. Photographed by the duo of Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the film flows beautifully frame to frame, and is one of the more well crafted films in quite some time.
As far as performances go, the film may not rely heavily on the skill of its cast, but there are a trio of absolutely fantastic performances. Spearheaded by Thanapat Saisaymar, the film only has five real credited actors, with Saisaymar, Sakda Kaewbuadee, and Jenjira Pongpas giving three really great performances. The trio play Boonmee, Tong, and Jen respectively, and really give this otherwise stilted and polarizing film a fantastic emotional core.
That said, this film is definitely not for everyone. Clocking in at just under two hours, the film is a truly slow burn, that, as mentioned above, doesn’t feature the most intense or taut narrative. Nothing really “happens” within the structure of this film, and while the viewer will take away quite a bit from this film, this is one where the viewer has to be attentive and active while watching. Not the easiest film to sit through, those who give it their full attention and go along for the ride, catfish sex and all, will know that this film isn’t a piece of cinema. It’s art. It’s an experience. It’s a masterpiece.
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