The first Thai winner of the Palme d’Or after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and so far seen mostly in Europe, Uncle Boonmee is about to get a limited release in New York City, while the Region 2 DVD is released in March. Here in the UK it was first shown at the London Film Festival in October 2010 before going on general release (i.e. in London and perhaps a few other big cities) a month later. I belatedly caught up with it on the day it was excluded from the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, a decision that I can now say seems quite understandable – for reasons not of quality, but of cinematic style.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Cannes 2010 jury was headed by Tim Burton, who no doubt appreciated Uncle Boonmee‘s fantastical nature, it’s hard to imagine many Academy members warming to a film so abstruse and understated. The titular character is an ageing man with a terminal kidney disease, slowly dying on his farm in a remote part of northeastern Thailand, where he is visited by his sister-in-law Jen and younger cousin Tong.
Imagine an American remake of this film with, say, unlikely Buddhist Uncle Fred doing the recalling. You would expect to see Fred on his deathbed, talking to his nephew Jim or whoever, directly telling him, and therefore us the audience, all about what he remembers of his previous existences. That is not what happens here. Teasingly, the film’s one similar scenario depicts Boonmee’s dream of the future rather than the past (albeit that these terms are somewhat fluid within this universe). Yet the title is not altogether misleading. While the three of them are eating dinner during Jen and Tong’s first night at the farm, the spirit of Boonmee’s dead wife Huay materialises at their table, soon to be joined by his long-lost son Boonsong in the form of a “monkey ghost,” an apelike creature with glowing red eyes whose mesmerising image recurs several times during the film. Boonmee has, perhaps, literally “recalled” into his present these loved ones whose lives have become past to him – one as he knew her, but older, one in an entirely new physical guise.
This playing with the meaning of the film’s title is indicative of Uncle Boonmee’s ambiguity regarding the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. It opens with a pre-title sequence showing a buffalo escaping from its tether and running into the forest before being recaptured, and interrupts the main narrative for a digressive interlude featuring a pockmarked princess who, after rejecting one of her servants as a suitor, enters a lake and has sex with a talking catfish (a scene every bit as ridiculous, and ridiculously great, as it sounds). The presumed implication is that these are illustrations of two of Boonmee’s past lives, most likely as the animals rather than the human characters, but in actuality this is no more than a theory which the film implants in the brain without ever providing evidence for. To what extent are we supposed to believe in the ‘literal truth’ of these events compared to the reappearances of Huay, who features in several later scenes, and Boonsong?
As you might imagine, this is not a film about plot and character in the sense that Western films typically are, but it doesn’t seem quite right to call it a film of ideas either, because there’s no intellectual argument being forced on the viewer. It’s like watching someone else’s dream — intriguing (at least if you’re interested in dreams, as I am), but lacking that intuitive, unspoken understanding of events that we have in our own dreams. Like a dream, it jumbles up and breaks down our sense of time, to the point that the final sequence of the film evokes the sense of two simultaneous realities coexisting at the same point in time in a kind of eternal present to set alongside, or perhaps negate, the images of presumed past and future we have previously seen.
Charming in its humorous combination of the mundane and ethereal, and full of beautiful nature imagery, Uncle Boonmee contains references in dialogue and TV images to violent actions, yet is one of the most gentle and ‘inactive’ films I’ve ever seen. It’s not anti-dramatic like Robert Bresson’s films, where the performances and staging counteract what would normally be thought of as dramatic situations, but non-dramatic. This is a large part of the reason why it will be both a hard sell and a tough watch for many people. Three or four people walked out of the screening I went to, and that was out of at most maybe a couple of dozen altogether. I’ll admit there are points that test the patience and shots that seem to last unnecessarily long, until you realise that is probably an integral part of the film’s often hypnotic effect. As far as meaning goes, I expect there are allusions to Thai folklore and history that will inevitably bypass me and most other non-Thai viewers. But I don’t think it’s essential to have much knowledge of Buddhist concepts to appreciate this film, and I certainly don’t believe that you’re expected to ‘get’ any one absolute message or idea from it.
Compared to an arguably similarly-themed film like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, an interesting failure with delusions of grandeur, Uncle Boonmee is far less po-faced, with no pretensions about making a BIG IMPORTANT STATEMENT about the human condition and the mysteries of existence. In an interview in the December 2010 issue of Sight and Sound, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (usually known as Joe) states that for him “Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a way of looking at the world.” This film is also a realisation of that credo, a highly personalised jungle mindscape to which we are all cordially invited, repeat viewings welcomed. Viewers are encouraged to conceive of themselves as a lower life-form — rather than the active aid of Boonmee’s dialysis machine, this film will, like rain on a tropical leaf, provide its rewards through osmosis.