Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a beguiling, haunting, floating miasma of a film, layered in symbolism and captivating imagery. But it lacks something.
What that something is is hard to pinpoint. The film has divided audiences and will continue to divide them for ever more. It’s as bizarre and unyielding as its title; a title which, incidentally, says a lot about the film. It is rarely dramatic, presenting its collected elements as a coherent whole. The film doesn’t consider it strange that a character should be pleasured in a plunge pool by a speaking catfish, and neither should you. The film’s matter-of-fact style occasionally invokes a pleasant smile on viewers’ lips: asking a ghost if she has eaten is normal.
The titular Boonmee, played by non-professional actor Thanapat Saisaymar, is dying of kidney failure and has retreated to the jungle to allow himself to pass away in peace. Cue visitations from his dead wife and son (who, incidentally, has become a monkey spirit with glowing red eyes: the film’s poster pic and single most startling image). All of this is played with a matter-of-fact simplicity. It doesn’t matter that it’s weird, because life is often weird. The fact that anybody who is dying would be welcomed into the afterlife – such that it may or may not exist – by ghosts of his or her past, is not unsurprising; the fact that Boonmee’s past lives are represented on screen (though they are never directly indicated) is part of the mystical package.
Weerasethakul’s film is ponderous, languid and resolutely not in the business of pandering to a typical audience. In the film’s opening sequence – actually one of its best – a buffalo frees itself from its leash in the half light and wanders into the jungle. The sequence is drawn out and atmospheric, culminating in a lingering, unmoving shot of the red eyed monkey, whose gaze is simultaneously threatening, mysterious and somehow innocent. It’s an excellent opening.
From there the film consistently throws good imagery at the screen, and interesting ideas, but its unfalteringly slow gestation carries with it a frustration. The film isn’t trying to ‘go anywhere’ as such – and so it ought not be denigrated for failing to do so – but at the same time it lacks an emotional punch, a sense of true involvement, a sense of finality. Perhaps it doesn’t need the latter – given the subject matter – but the point is, the film tests your patience at times and doesn’t always justify it.
Mesmeric and meandering, Uncle Boonmee is worth a viewing, and it has great qualities, but as an overall experience it never quite reaches the heights it often feels like it might reach.