NYFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Imagine watching Return of the Jedi without any prior knowledge of Star Wars. In fact, pretend you’ve never even heard of Star Wars—that you think Jedi is a standalone film. You walk in late, missing the opening scrollby that explains everything from the first two movies, a few minutes pass, then BAM, some asshole in a helmet is flying around sand-dunes shooting laser beams at people. There’s a big half-finished lego ball in the sky and thousands of midgets running around the forest wearing tiny bear costumes. Towards the end, the dude with breathing problems takes off his asthma mask to reveal a hideous burnt fish face. As the credits roll you think to yourself “What the fuck did I just watch?”. And in spite of all that, you would still have a more firm understanding of Jedi than I had of Apichatpong Weerasethankul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a film somehow more confounding than the pronunciation of its director’s name. The one thing Jedi has on its side? Narrative.

This was so much cooler when I thought it was a screenshot for the new Team Ico game.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center provides this brief synopsis of Boonmee “Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year for this gently comic and wholly transporting tale of death and rebirth, set in Thailand’s rural northeast. Uncle Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, is tended to by loved ones and visited by the ghosts of his wife and son…”.

That’s bullshit. Uncle Boonmee appears in most scenes, but the movie isn’t about him—it isn’t about anything. The first ten minutes are spent listening to tedious dinner-table conversation between Boonmee and his living family. Eventually his wife’s ghost shows up, adding her tedious contribution about shoes or noodles or whatever the hell she says (I honestly can’t remember.). This all leads up to the reveal of a gruesome and horrifying monkey-man with crimson laser-beam eyes—a monster who will surely tear the family asunder, ripping them limb from bloody limb before feasting on their delicious organs and sending their souls to hell!

Or have a bland, monotone conversation with Uncle Boonmee.

Apparently one of the old man’s sons mated with a Monkey Spirit, which, of course, turned him into a bigfoot. The forest surrounding Boonmee’s hut is actually surrounded by bigfoots (bigfeet?). Don’t question it.

So what horrible secrets or undeniable truths are revealed to Boonmee on his deathbed? Where does this dinner lead? Honey-chewing in a field (yes, chewing) and delusions of government flashlights which can expose a person’s private life. Oh, and did I leave out the part about the nameless princess getting raped by a talking catfish? Yeah, that happens too.

If this sounds like the babblings of a madman, I apologize. It’s the film, not me. Maybe the judges at Cannes confused the Palme d’Or with the Palme d’BORE; while the different vignettes may be stunning on a sensory level, there’s absolutely no through-line whatsoever. The director could just as well have made six different movies with one old man continually moping about in the background, contributing nothing, and called it his “Uncle Boonmee Anthology”; when the old man finally dies in a cave you feel nothing—mostly because you know nothing about him.

Weerasethankul held a Q&A after my screening where he explained that the film was intended as a eulogy to the dying tropes of his Thai cinematic heritage—the monkey-man an example of B horror, the princess his version of fantasy, etc, etc. The problems this cause are twofold—first, Uncle Boonmee is trumpeted as a dying man’s reflection on life, which it is not, and second, how can anyone outside a very niche group of Northeast Thailanders understand what he’s saying? Watching this film is like pushing a rope uphill—a near Sisyphean exercise in frustration and frivolity. Even if you kick back and take the ride, it leads nowhere and says nothing. Luckily this mess will probably never see American distribution—but just in case it does, avoid it like the plague.

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