Home > Uncategorized > Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

A water buffalo slips free of its tether and wanders in lush gloom, seems stilled in recognition, and is then gently recaptured. It had sensed a ghostly presence; a black silhouette with one visible characteristic: effulgent, electric red eyes.

Amidst this intoxicating dreamscape we join a man, Boonmee, and his family: his sister-in law and cousin. Boonmee is dying and, as the end of his life quietly nears, he is visited by both the ghost of his dead wife and his son, who had vanished years previously, and who now appears as a man-monkey hybrid, having chased and attempted to capture the ‘Monkey God’ with his camera prior to his disappearance. The manifestation of these two characters is handled so beautifully and uncannily as to render you speechless and awed – the pacing and the unfussy introduction of both lends the scene a wondrous magic. The response of Boonmee, his sister and cousin is a delight and sets the tone: there is an almost immediate acceptance from Boonmee, a playful, amused consternation otherwise, but no horrified objections to these startling arrivals. Everyone and everything is equal and understood. It’s rapturous stuff, the likes of which has you reaching into the memory banks for similar moments: and there just aren’t any.

What follows is a sequence of ‘past lives remembered’ (I think), portrayed in divergent ways: surreally resplendent, colour-saturated lake scene; eerie voyage through cave innards; still photo reportage and so on. Although, this film being what it is, one can never be sure quite what is going on, to no particular loss.

Part of the reasoning behind the underlying aesthetic (which, to me, was so mysteriously, heart-stoppingly exotic) is referencing old Thai horror films, wherein malevolent characters (hidden in shadow and in long-shot as a means of hiding unconvincing costumes and make-up, apparently) can often be seen with red LCD points as ‘eyes’. It’s an incredibly effective conceit to the uninitiated; those with an exhaustive understanding and exposure to Thai cinema will obviously find other depths to this visual trope.

Uncle Boonmee, then, is simply astounding. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a magician, nothing less.  The switch throughout from tranquil, fluid otherness, still photos, 16mm backward-glances, meditative scene lengths with little movement within the frame, hyper-real encounters with fish, eerie encounters met with equanimity, blank inscrutability and pervasions of benevolent possibility all lend an implacable sense to the film, which is quietly impactful and resonant, and is as much a wondrous place to visit as much as it is a memorable, often staggering, boundless experience in which worlds real, imagined and supposed coalesce. I’m still, after reading myriad reports and reviews of the film, far from wise as to what it is (political allegory? Homage? Purposefully elusive parallel world?). I still haven’t found my way back from it, to be perfectly honest, but it’s the kind of time-collapsing experience that should be mandatory for anyone with a remotely serious interest in what a truly great film can do to your head and heart, long beyond the running time.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Tremendous. This is one of the more exciting recent films from what I’ve heard and you definitely make it sound rewarding. I’ll buy it when it hits DVD.

  2. April 21, 2011 at 7:56 am

    Max, it’s out on DVD:


    and I urge you to get hold! You’ll love it I’m sure. Weerasethakul is clearly a bit special.

  3. April 21, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Ooh, thanks.

  4. May 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    I watched this the weekend just past, and it utterly lives up to your review. A wonderful film, folklore made vivid and set now rather than in some imagined past. I’ll definitely be rewatching it.

    One thing, I think the photo montage element was a shout out to Chris Marker’s La Jetee, featuring as it did psychic time travel to the future portrayed solely through changing photographs. I’m sure there were countless other references I didn’t catch, not that it matters. It’s a film with worlds within it.

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