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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MIFF 2010 Diary: Pre Festival – Part 1

20 July 2010

2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF)The 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival is now only a couple of day away so it’s time to start my online diary to cover the event. In the past couple of years I’ve written short capsule reviews of selected films but this year I’ve decided to write up each day in short diary entries to give a better impression of the festival as a whole. There won’t be many (if any) full reviews of general release films coming from me during this time so I apologise to all my non-Melbourne readers in advance.

Booking/planning advice

Most of you have probably already booked your sessions by now but my main advice for attending film festivals it to remember that it is a festival and not a competition. It doesn’t matter how many films you see and trying to cram in too many can destroy the overall experience. Pace yourself and allow time to catch up with fellow cinephiles. Many years ago I did go nuts trying to see four or five films everyday and all I remember was getting very sick, not eating properly and always needing to go to the toilet! All the films blurred into one and it was all a bit miserable.

This year I am doing my best to follow these rules:

  • Three films per day maximum
  • No more than two films back-to-back
  • See only what I want to see – not what I feel I should see
  • If in doubt, scratch whatever is playing at the Greater Union cinemas (because those cinemas contain neither prestige nor comfort and I like cinemas to have at least one of those two elements).

I’ll no doubt break these rules occasionally but at least my intentions are good!

Finally, to help you select your films I’d suggest you check out the list of MIFF films with Australia distributors (and in some cases release dates) on A Little Lie Down; the new blog by film critic and film festival reporter (among many other things) Cerise Howard. I’ve also recently stumbled across a great online MIFF planner by Daniel Sheppard. Not only can you better organise your own MIFF schedule but you can check out what other users, including me, are seeing.

My current dilemma

Scott Pilgrim vs Uncle Boonmee

Scott Pilgrim vs Uncle Boonmee

My only major scheduling conflict at the moment is to do with the recent news that the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is now playing on the final day at the same time as Edgar Wright’s new film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now Uncle Boonmee is clearly an important film and exactly the sort of film that is best suited to see at a film festival while Scott Pilgrim is getting released in cinemas everywhere less than a week later. It seems like an obvious choice.

However, I’ve seen Uncle Boonmee director’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul previous feature film Syndromes and a Century and although I could appreciate it, it was a very meditative film that was difficult to stay awake during! I’ve been told that Uncle Boonmee is similarly paced and I just don’t know if I can endure that as the final film of a very long festival. Scott Pilgrim on the other hand promises to be tremendous fun and exactly the kind of thing that is a blast to finish on. So, I’m edging towards Scott Pilgrim

For my next post I’ll share some of my top picks for the festival and some thoughts on the films that are playing that I’ve already seen are also on the way.


Vote choc top!

Vote choc top!

PS Don’t forget to vote in the very fun popcorn verse choc top poll! I’m a bit alarmed to see that at the time of writing this, popcorn is in the lead. No food should weigh less then the actually money you use to pay for it. Vote choc top: dress in black (it is Melbourne after all) and just accept that you will end up wearing half of it.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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