Uncle Boonmee (Who Can Remember his Past Lives) is unlike any film you’ll see this year. You may leave the cinema entranced by the film’s beauty or perplexed by it’s baffling plot, or more likely, both. It travels through emotional landscapes that are peaceful, but also slightly unsettling.
The film is not only strange, but it also seems to have divided opinion fairly clearly. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes today, the critics have given it a very respectable 86% approval rating, while the audience managed a measly 43%. Earlier in the summer, under ever-quirky presidency of Tim Burton, the Cannes jury gave the film the highest accolade an independent film can win, the Palme d’Or. But is it really only going to appeal to the art house crowd?
The film centres on Uncle Boonmee, who is dying of kidney failure on his farm in the remote North East of Thailand. The ailing man is visited by his sister-in-law and nephew who come to help the carer who is currently doing all the work. As Boonmee and his sister-in-law haven’t seen each other for a while they catch up, reminisce, discuss mortality… and remember past lives.
Or rather, episodes occur which one presumes are past lives, although it’s not made clear. The film is divided into six episodes, some of featuring Boonmee and some not, and the relationship between them and to Boonmee is not always obvious.
There is only one section where I actually thought, ‘Ah yes, this must be a past life’. A princess, presumably from the past, has a very peculiar adventure in the jungle. It wouldn’t be good to say too much about the princess’ experience, because half of the fun of the movie comes from the unexpected unfolding of events. This is one of the things that led the The Financial Times to say of the film, “Magical realism? More magical magic.”
This eerie magic comes from a radical change of pace as much as anything – from the moment the film starts, time slows down and our racing minds must put on their mental flip flops in order to pad their way through these dream vistas. Boonmee himself is a curious character, reflecting with bemusement on his (past) life and still managing to stay relaxed despite a pipe that drains his kidney sticking out of his side.
If you end up wondering what is going on, it might be helpful to remember that the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, doesn’t particularly want to help you figure it out, or at least want to provide you with an clear meaning. He told the Financial Times that he originally had a voice over which would explain much of the film, but decided to scrap it. His lack of assistance for audiences extends to Thailand too, as the actors largely speak a Laotian dialect from North Eastern Thailand so even audiences in Bangkok will struggle without subtitles. If you’re struggling, it’s because you’re meant to.
There is a useful bit of advice for watching Uncle Boonmee that might help you make the most of it. When Weerasethakul was introducing a screening of the film at the British Film Institute (BFI) he advised audiences to “abandon logic and preconceptions about what film narrative should be.” Taking this further, it could be said that the film itself is a meditation on abandonment.