Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)

How arrogantly narrow, infinitely small and ultimately foolish is our understanding of human existence? The nature epic The Tree of Life broadened audience’s horizons with visions of the world’s inception and ruminations on one lad’s life. And while I admire Malick’s attempt, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s (also known as Joe) effort resonates deeper and digs farther beyond the realms of our understanding.

Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is slowly dying, his kidney must be purged every day. Facing the end of his life, he’s met by several visitors, both expected and unexpected. His daughter-in-law and her son come to visit and the three become guests to two otherworldly visitors: Boonmee’s long dead wife and his missing son.

Their visit gives Boonmee a chance to peek beyond the veil of death. Unlike the flowery, happy visions of afterlife often presented in the arts, those that persists beyond the grave don’t find the prospect nearly as exciting or joyous as those in the earthy realm might imagine it. In fact, the two ethereal visitors are resigned and indifferent to their own existence.

As the film progresses and the audience is given more brief glimpses into these existence of these strange visitors, it’s peppered with subtle touches that have broad implications, some ideas that the living characters don’t even seem to be able to understand even though they hear them. At times, it’s almost frustrating how persistent they are in their ignorance.

Joe writes this film more as an exploration of these notions, letting the beauty of a moment override the need to tell a story. These characters are shocked at their visitors, but they aren’t nearly as shaken or persistent in their questions as we might expect. Joe doesn’t want them to ask the questions because he’s not interested in handing out the answers, just provoking notions as to what the life beyond might be like.

Uncle Boonmee is one of the more bizarre, unusual and compelling visual films committed to film in recent years. There’s not a clear reference point for the imagery being evoked. It’s left in some ambivalence, a hellish vision wrapped in this mystic, almost fairy tale like air. While the mood is almost sinisterly unclear, it’s clearly one of the best looking films of the year.

In terms of visuals, Joe and cinematographers Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom  are able to let images convey one of the film’s strongest themes, the idea that transcendence must be reached by letting go of physical trappings. In one beautiful vignette, an ugly princess is given a majestic vision of what she could be, but in order to achieve this vision, she must remove all inhibitions, casting aside all trappings that drag her down to earth.

It’s moments like these that show Joe is able to retain the grandness of his vision without indulging in visual spectacle like The Tree of Life. Not every instant is immediately clear in its intent, or even in its meaning, but it’s a more focus, grounded and accomplished in its goals. The bizarre slant and the refusal to explain will frustrate many viewers, but for those who love it, that’s the exact reason that it excels.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • CS

    Nice review James.

    I really enjoyed this film. I actually preferred it over Tree of Life even with all its strange traits. I found myself thinking about the themes of an afterlife much longer, after seeing the film, than I had originally anticipated.

    • I think Tree of Life was more thought provoking for me, but I think this ended up being a much stronger film that had more of an emotional connection for me.

  • Of the films I am counting as 2011 releases this one is certainly near the top of my list, so I’m naturally glad that you seemed to love it as well. What I found striking, and will likely write in my review when I watch this again, is just how culturally specific this is, much like Tree of Life, without that ever being a deterrent. For me that is because, once again like Tree of Life, the movie prods much larger universal ideas. It really hits my cinematic/cultural sweet spot like few other films.

    • I’m not familiar with Thai culture, but I certainly felt that influence on the film. It certainly makes me interested in exploring their heritage.

  • This really was a movie that moved me.

    • I didn’t get too emotional, but it is a movie I found touching,

  • Is it a doc?

    • No, it’s a purely fictional film. That would be quite interesting, though. Joe does have a very natural style, but his films are rooted in ideas of reincarnation that often involve large jumps in time.