Film review – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

3 March 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesIn the February 2010 edition of the acclaimed UK film criticism journal Sight & Sound, Jonathan Romney wrote about the film festival popularity of what he calls Slow Cinema. Borrowing the name from the Slow Food movement, which in the most general terms is a movement to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability, Slow Cinema is a style of cinema that is slow, mediative and offers an obvious alternative to the dominance of contemporary Hollywood cinema. As Romney explains this poetic cinematic trend is to produce “cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of the temporality”.

While Sight & Sound editor Nick James has warned that Slow Cinema runs the risk of being an all-too-easy to embrace movement of cinematic worthiness that is potentially developing its own set of clichés, there are still key films that deserve the recognition they have received. One such film is the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a leading figure in contemporary Slow Cinema.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThe springboard for the thematic and sensory exploration throughout Uncle Boonmee is the idea that the central titular character is extremely ill and is reflecting back on his life (or lives?) through encounters with a variety of visitors. Thai politics, regional history, Buddhism, social commentary, myth, memory, fantasy, dreams and a deep love for the natural world are entwined to create a rich visual and atmospheric tapestry. Weerasethakul shoots many scenes in low light at dusk to create the sensation of being not fully in the waking world and not fully in the dream world. The half sleep and half waking sensation allows the film to gently meander from Boonmee’s interactions with his family, in whatever shape or form they visit, to the telling of a fable involving popular elements from Thai mythology.

Uncle Boonmee is part of a larger multi-platform art project by Weerasethakul that is titled Primate and focuses on its north-eastern Thai setting, near the border of Laos. While Uncle Boonmee is undoubtedly a personal artistic expression by Weerasethakul, it does contain a degree of political commentary by effectively touching on the violence that occurred in the region in 1965 when the Thai military cracked down on communist sympathisers. However, to a viewer without this background information, the primary purpose for the setting would be to display the beautiful Thai jungles that Boonmee owns a farm in. A characteristic of Slow Cinema is the long lingering shots that really compel the viewer to look, study and notice every detail in frame. Weerasethakul even frequently starts shots before the scenes have actually started – sometimes before the characters have walked into frame – just to treat the audience to the natural beauty appearing on screen. Weerasethakul’s themes of uniting the spirit, animal and human worlds are seamlessly conveyed in his almost neo-romantic depiction of nature.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesHowever, as much as Uncle Boonmee is about life and harmony with nature, it is also about death and the forces that deliver death. The actual physical death of a person is not what is softly mourned in this film, since physical death is simply part of the circle of life, but spiritual death is represented. This spiritual death is hinted at in a number of ways that are widely open to interpretation but one would be Boonmee’s dark dream about the future, represented by still photographs of soldiers. Perhaps the use of frozen stills is also a commentary that even film itself is dying, with Uncle Boonmee being one of the last films on this scale to be actually shot directly onto film. Uncle Boonmee even ends with a vision of two possible futures but both seem empty, especially when compared to the imagery that the film had previously provided to its audience.

Uncle Boonmee is certainly Slow Cinema in the sense that it does evolve slowly and has been designed so that each moment lingers on the screen for the audience to really soak in. However, this is a mesmerising film that is endlessly unexpected, engaging and fascinating even without the cultural context that Weerasethakul is unapologetically drawing from. Weerasethakul is a deeply humanist artist and in this film he is sharing his vision of the world (worlds?) with the audience and it’s a privilege to experience.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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