Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: Cannes Top Winner

Strand, March 1, 2011 
By Patrick Z. McGavin

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of those unclassifiable directors whose movies offer a continuously open, adventurous and exciting new ways of filmmaking.  His astounding fifth feature “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” captured the highest honor in international cinema, the Palme d’Or of the 63rd Cannes Film festival Sunday night.

Weerasethakul exists in a world of his own, drawing on experimental and abstract theories to make haunting movies about the most primal, direct and accessible emotions. His two previous movies, “Tropical Malady” and “Syndromes and a Century,” were spellbinding, beautiful and enigmatic films that brilliantly used allusive two-part structures to tell their stories of thwarted relationships, love and regret.
Weerasethakul draws on folk tales, anecdotes, oral histories and ethnography in devising his highly original and beguiling movies that negotiate the spiritual and the material domains. (“Syndromes and a Century” was quite autobiographical, drawing on the background of how his parents met.)
The new entrancing, strange, film echoes the second section of “Tropical Malady.” In that earlier film, the first part tracks the playful relationship that develops between a provincial ice cream truck driver and a good looking soldier. The second part is about the truck driver pursuing the soldier deep into the Thai jungle, believing he has transmogrified into a ghost tiger. “The movie is an homage to my home, and to a certain kind of cinema I grew up with,” Weerasethakul said in the press notes.
Like all of the director’s films, “Uncle” resists simple classification in narrative terms. It is best just to submit to the dreamy, slow and sensual rhythms that simply take hold.
The movie is roughly divided into three parts. Weerasethakul, who studied painting and filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, opens the tale deep in the jungle. Suffering from advanced, incurable stage of acute liver failure, the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar, a nonprofessional) is preparing emotionally and spiritually for his own death.
He is tended over by an illegal Lao worker (Sakda Kaesbuadee) and a friend Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). As he recounts stories about his past, he is jolted by two startling visions: the ghost of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) who turns up at his side and even more unaccountably, the altered though unmistakable form of his son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). The son disappeared trying to learn the provenance of a strange human and animal hybrid species called “ghost monkeys,” human shaped beasts outfitted in thick, dark hair and distinguished by their piercing red eyes.
As he is administered dialysis, Uncle Boonmee is naturally curious about the source of his illness and wonders what past calamity, outrage or violation he committed might account for the particularly brutal and painful sentence visited on his present life.
That inquiry yields the movie’s second movement with Boonmee taking his family deeper into the jungle to locate a strange and eerily beautiful hilltop cave that he believes marks the birthplace of his first life. He recounts fantastic and exotic stories about the curious sexual plight of a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) captured beneath an incandescent waterfall. In the mesmerizing visual sequence, she is tricked into believing she’s been transformed into a younger, pristine version of herself.
What exactly it all means and how it exists within the larger framework is not wholly clear. But that is wondrously beside the point, as it is never necessary to understand in the conventional sense how the pieces exactly fit. Weerasethakul simply invites the spectator to take in the gorgeous imagery. Weerasethakul draws on the water and light that imbues the moment with a hypnotic, painterly image of extraordinary beauty. 
That moment is followed by an equally strange sexual encounter between the princess and a catfish, and part of the film’s wonder is trying to figure out whether it is the princess or the catfish who constitutes one of the title character’s previous lives.
Weerasethakul is drawn to the fantastic, but he is concerned with the particular, almost hand-made style of filmmaking. He privileges emotion, freedom, imagination and spontaneity. The open and associate imagery is balanced by serious emotional connection to the material.
The effect is haunting, graceful and profound, like a succession of still images and photographs he deploys to advance the story further, telling of a strange group of future travels returning to the present (shades of Chris Marker’s “La jetee”). This kind of storytelling is bound to frustrate some people because it leave so much unanswered.
At the same time, it turns cinema into music in the sense it violates rules of order and segmented, linear storytelling in favor of a mélange of moods, feelings and actions. That leads to the third section where a life is examined and talked about, leading to yet another ghost-like appearance.
Those familiar with the director’s output are likely to understand the mood and rhythms a little easier than most. Those who encounter his work for the first time might feel like people did at the start of the 20th century.
“Uncle Boonmee” is art cinema of a very high order. It is also a great movie, justly rewarded by the grand jury, headed by American filmmaker Tim Burton.