Sam Newton’s Film Review: ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’

In the jungle borders between Thailand and Laos, in the region of Isan, Boonmee has its home. On the borderline of nations, of life and death, of the real and spirit worlds Apichatpong Weerasethakul has created a mystifying, sometimes baffling, film in the strange lands of limbo. And on entering these mythical borderlands, cinema begins to slow and warp into its 24 frames p/s of photography. Like Ozu before him, Weerasethakul keeps his camera still, his shots slow and his cuts minimal and similar to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Boonmee has concerns with mortality, old-age and family – only the family in Tokyo Story didn’t have ghosts, sasquatches and sex with catfish.

Boonmee is probably the strangest film to win the Palme D’Or in recent history. Of what might be called the film’s narrative, farmer, Uncle Boonmee, is dying and as his family gather-round he receives strangely corporeal visitations from his past: the ghost of his dead wife drops in over dinner, his long-lost son returns as an ape-spirit and there’s a bizarre sequence of his past-life as a princess. But if you are willing to hand yourself over to the films surreal humours it becomes hopelessly bewitching. All-told, Boonmee is probably one of the most fascinatingly atmospheric, original and stunning films you could hope to find.

Watching Boonmee itself feels like having an out-of-body experience.  Weerasethakul often fixes us to the spot; passively observing the scene from distance as the lives and sprits of the jungle whisper around us. It’s an eerie intimacy with nature that Weerasethakul exposes us to: We can feel every snapping twig and every rustling leaf, every bug and every beast and sense its watchful, unseen spirits. It’s a disquieting and fascinating sensation all at once. Disembodied in the dark of the cinema you become absorbed by the sights and sounds of the mystic forest: everything in it feels alive. For fairly lengthy takes we can be left still and alone in the jungle gazing at its movements and colour and surrounded by the closeness of its sounds, at times it even threatens to crowd-out the action. The jungle haunts this movie and there’s a real sense that maybe we do too.

The evasive and dreamlike tendencies of the film make Uncle Boonmee better experienced than understood. Weerasethakul proudly claims the No-Man’s Land of cinema, the transitive territories where film becomes photography, where genres blur and hybridise and the creepy can become comedic and back again. In such a world a ghost materialising during dinner is half-expected, a man can cross-breed with a monkey and a lady with a cat-fish and while still peculiar, more strangely, it seems totally appropriate. Yet the cast’s subtle and naturalistic performances could have us believe that this is the most earnest of family dramas – only the jungle’s ever-looming presence reminds us never to doubt the phantasms.

Uncle Boonmee reveals the thin mosquito-net gauze we place between life and death, man and beast, physicality and spirituality with a subversive joy and then tears it down through the dense jungle bracken. It’s playful, beautiful and quite bewildering  – a unique, unearthly experience caught between worlds.

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