Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

All beings great and small…stirring in the night.

The eyes are watching you.

Writer/Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (say that five times fast) has created Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to be even more ponderous than his name or the film’s title.  In Thailand, an ailing farmer named Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is cared for in his final days by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) while restless spirits lurk in the jungle around them.

The film’s central conceit is that as one approaches death, memories flood the mind, and loved ones living and dead pay a visit and watch over us.  As a Buddhist, Unlce Boonmee recalls not just his current life, but also past lives.  What was done for Christianity in films like Dreyer’s Ordet or Reygadas’ Silent Light is done here for Buddhism.  The spiritual lives of the characters are presented as if programmed in their DNA.  It is not questioned; it just is.  But whereas the other films presented a linear, “We live, We die, We rise,” narrative, here there is cosmic fluidity where one life or one being flows into the next for all eternity.  This inner knowing is translated onto screen in a mesmerizing cacophony of sound design and imagery that evokes that cyclical flow…the stirring…of all beings great and small…past and present and future…in the night (symbolic of death).

The recollections are presented in a quasi-Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness.  Some tangents (like the appearance of Boonmee’s dead wife Huay) are emotionally effecting without wallowing in sentiment, while other tangents are so otherworldly (including a story about a princess who encounters a talking catfish) that I can only assume (or hope) that they are representative of some Thai myth I am currently ignorant of.  Then there is the appearance of Boonmee’s son (who disappeared years ago) as some red-eyed, sooth-saying, half-monkey/half-man that is every bit as wondrous as an encounter with an intelligent alien life form. 

Disney's next animated musical: The Princess and the Catfish

The film’s structure allows for the invasion of memories from other films and our everyday lives.  During the “mythological flashbacks” I was reminded of those leisurely back-stories in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, while there were other moments that reminded me of everything from Silent Light to Star Wars to Fritz Lang’s Destiny to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.  At one point I thought about the last time I had lemongrass soup and how much I really like Thai food.  Yet still there were moments I couldn’t even comprehend, and there were stretches where it was as if the film was taking place in another universe all together.

While lethargically (or shall we say, hypnotically) paced, there is a feeling of constant movement as some of the imagery (rich in symbolism) is so transfixing as to render the viewer half asleep and half awake.  Never is the film inert, and never are we not aware of some omnipresence of mind.  Like Boonmee, we are eventually drawn into the deep recesses of the jungle, and his peaceful demise in a cave in which he was born in a past life is so very beautiful and strange and common.

From this cave my spirit came and went.

There’s an odd “tacked-on” nature to the last 20 minutes where we see Jen go back to the city after Boonmee’s final days and carry on with her life, attending the funeral and using her niece and nephew Tong (now a Buddhist monk in training) to help tie things up.  It seems to imply that the world will carry on without us.  After all, as Jen tells her niece, with regards to Uncle Boonmee, “I hardly knew him.”  There’s a clear demarcation between the country life and the city, but both have their monotony…their flow…their trance-like appeals….and both are filled with memories. 

The film’s closing scenes demystify the nature of spirituality.  Here we are reminded that the bizarre, the mysterious, the mundane and the miraculous are as equally at home inside of us as they are without.  But in the world of cinema, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is no everyday miracle.  It’s a one-in-a-million ghost story.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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5 comments on “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

  1. Prakash says:

    I can’t believe you reviewed this movie at this point of time. Reason: I just picked up the DVD last week and am about to watch it at the next given opportunity. Isn’t it strange you too watched it now.

    I’ve heard a lot about Apachatpong Weerasethakul and this movie. Your review definitely throws better light on this movie than some others that I’ve read. More comments from me once I watch it.

    Prakash – strange indeed. And the only reason I was able to see it was because a friend sent me a copy of the DVD (otherwise I would’ve missed out as it is currently only playing in NYC and LA right now). I am very interested to hear your future insights on this truly bizarre film. –DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    “The recollections are presented in a quasi-Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness. Some tangents (like the appearance of Boonmee’s dead wife Huay) are emotionally effecting without wallowing in sentiment, while other tangents are so otherworldly (including a story about a princess who encounters a talking catfish) that I can only assume (or hope) that they are representative of some Thai myth I am currently ignorant of.”

    Excellent observations throughout David, and a fine appreciative review of a sure masterpiece of the cinema, by one of our most gifted artists. I hope to get to a review myself, but yours is wonderful!

    Thanks, Sam. I wouldn’t have been able to have seen it if it weren’t for you. So double thanks! –DHS

  3. Ed Howard says:

    I loved this film as well, David, and your review does a great job of tackling its often-elusive currents. One thing to note is that much of its more outlandish imagery apparently comes from Weerasethakul’s affection for Thai commercial cinema – with the haunting monkey ghost being a reference to B horror/sci-fi cinema and the princess/catfish fable an appropriation of the style of historical costume dramas. The film’s interpolated memories take on the form of interpolated films, as though a reel of another film altogether was woven into Boonmee’s consciousness as his memories of other lives, other incarnations – a surprisingly spiritual appreciation of the cinema.

    Ed – that’s fascinating! I was definitely getting the vibe of “life as film” or “film as a recorder of myth and memory” during this…and those two “behind-the-scenes” facts now validate that. It’s almost Jungian – like we are all connected through film. –DHS

  4. Aiden R. says:

    Just saw this on Saturday and got a review for it coming up tomorrow. Weird stuff, way weirder than I thought it would be (eg: catfish sex), but still, there was something fantastic about it. So unlike anything I’ve seen before and so inviting to boot.

    Aiden, I had to watch it again the next night just to be sure I didn’t dream it. Mondo-bizarre yet also very logical in its presentation – filmed with great purpose. –DHS

  5. The Writer says:

    Great review. I have to admit the first thing I googled after coming back from the theatre was whether catfish have any spiritual significance in Thai culture. Unfortunately–or fortunately–all I found were recipes.

    As a side note, I was wondering why you chose the Buddhism tag for this post. I guess that’s both a blogging question and a film-related one. Besides the obvious (reincarnation, Thailand, the monks), do you think the movie had Buddhist philosophical underpinnings?

    The Writer – thanks, I enjoyed your review as well. I feel the film had very strong spiritual underpinnings based in Buddhism. In some ways, it presented an almost universal spirtuality influenced by many things from film and religion, but it was clearly inspired by basic Buddhist tenants in my mind – reincarnation being the most obvious. — DHS

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