Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that first really came to my attention as a film that was picked as Cahiers du Cinema, the famous French film magazine which once was home to most of (if not all) the founding members of the French New Wave, as the best film of 2010. This film was named on all ballots. Then upon reading about it I found that it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, also worth noting that the Jury last year was headed by Tim Burton. These two facts are mentioned because the source is worth noting. Both Burton and the French are supporters of the notion that the unusual and lack of easy answers can be preferable to a transparent plot and easy escapism.
As is the case with any film I will endeavor to render, as clearly as possible, my opinion of the film. My best advice to you is to read up on Uncle Boonmee before you decide to seek it out at Art Houses or on home video. Many reviews will discuss the film with words like “opacity” and “paradoxical” but also have very positive things to say about it even without reaching very definitive conclusions.
I will not be too different than those. There is an absolute reverie in Magical Realism that abounds throughout this film. Ghosts and mythological beings weave their way into the tapestry of the story in a wonderfully unobtrusive way. Yet the weaving is something that is not so very apparent. Things are set up early on left aside and then revisited later.
It’s as if Weerasethakul were setting up a math equation, or four, and omitting the sum or at times even the operation. An example, is the Ghost Monkey. It is an image and a concept that is first made known to us with a very frightful closing shot, and moment of genuine horror, of the prologue. This is not fully explicated until the spirit world is introduced in full when a very casual dinner conversation is held with Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife. Similarly the Ghost Monkey also turns out to be a relation, however, those are examples of where the equation is laid out before you and all you have to do is add it up.
There are two more extended sequences in which the answers, if there are any, are much harder to decipher. Not that this necessarily makes the film less enjoyable but it is worth noting. In both cases it is possible to develop one’s own theory as to what the significance of the segment was. There is one case in which you have no time to decode within the film because the film ends immediately following it so you are asked to contemplate after its conclusion.
While these portions are slightly out of step with the narrative, such as it is, they do not run counter to the approach of the film. Even the few easily discernible plot points, in a more traditional sense, are disseminated in an unconventional way. At times they occur before the scene in question and off-screen. This is sort of a distanced approach to the narrative that invites the viewer to examine the surrounding environs of these people’s lives and examine possibilities that are not apparent or necessarily logical.
This narrative choice is also reflected in the visual approach of the film as well as it relies heavily on long takes and wide vistas rather than quick cuts and close-ups. The framing and lighting of these shots is typically meticulous and they are also generally well lit.
Uncle Boonmee is the kind of film that may or may not get better upon a second viewing but it seems to be inviting one too. While it doesn’t reward the viewer with overwhelming amounts of escapism it does provide much food for thought. It is the kind of film that will occupy the viewer’s mind long after its completion. It is one of the matter-of-fact and deftly handled interpretation of the Magical Realist cinema I’ve seen and that alone makes it worth viewing and is one of its redeeming qualities. Having these apparitions occur with characters incapable of dealing with it would’ve been insipid and trying of the audience’s patience.