Friday, August 11, 2017

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, Thailand / UK / France / Germany / Spain / Netherlands, 114 minutes
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writers: Phra Sripariyattiweti, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Music: Penguin Villa
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong

It's official. According to the rankings of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, the critics (generic plural) are kookoo for the baffling Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. They just can't agree on which of his movies they like best. Tropical Malady remains the perennial and/or aggregated consensus favorite, presently at #9, its highest position ever. Blissfully Yours, an earlier picture, has followed a more erratic path, entering the list some years ago in the mid-200s, falling off it entirely for a year, and then spiking to the top 20 for a few years before drifting down. Last year it went from #23 to #71.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives not only has the best title but was also the first movie I happened to see by Weerasethakul, and maybe for that reason it's my favorite. As much as I can say I have a favorite. Certainly the first thing you see from such a strange sensibility is often the one that sticks with you hardest (looking at you, Eraserhead). The best parts of Uncle Boonmee are funny, spooky, beautiful, and startlingly matter-of-fact about the loopy spirituality (recalling that "loopy," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder). Its nighttime jungle scenes are gorgeous, shadowy, confounding, pad-footed, eerie—for many scenes, even sitting in a theater, you have to let your eyes adjust to the day for night filter to make out the cryptic images, shapes, and movements. The critics have kept it solidly in the top 40 on the list since shortly after its release, and last year it moved from #38 to #18. I like it, so I'm happy for its good fortunes this way, but these movies by Weerasethakul are not easy.

One problem is the impulse to look for or impose rational order where the opposite is intended. Weerasethakul is seeking to connect on irrational planes—I like that, but not surprisingly it's hit and miss and YMMV and there's no accounting for taste and all the usual disclaimers. I like what I like about Uncle Boonmee, that is, but I am still often confused by the larger project. The scenes in Uncle Boonmee are so disconnected—Weerasethakul's movies are always built out of disconnected parts, but there seem to be many more of them here—that it often strays into willful pastiche.

There is the spine of a narrative revolving around Uncle Boonmee, who not only can recall his past lives, more or less (we never hear about them), but also attracts ghosts and spirits who become visible to others when they are near him. He is an old man in his 60s with kidney disease who requires regular dialysis. His death is near and he knows it.

Early on his first wife Huay, who died when she was 42, stops by to say hello. It's possible she and the other visiting ghost have sensed Uncle Boonmee is dying. Huay is also the older sister of his present wife, Jen, but her ghost looks younger because in this movie your spirit appearance more or less stays the age at which you died. This doesn't exactly apply to their son Boonsong, the other ghost, who disappeared years ago and also shows up the same night. He has the appearance of an ape, with eyes that glow red in the dark. He is a Monkey Ghost now. His story, which Boonmee hears for the first time that night, is that the night he disappeared as a boy he had sexual relations with a Monkey Ghost and took her for a wife and his life changed completely.

What I like best about Uncle Boonmee, and Weerasethakul's movies more generally, are these pedestrian interpenetrations between the material and spiritual worlds. These encounters simply happen. They are unusual, they don't happen frequently, but they are accepted for what they are. Weerasethakul torques it further with gentle humor—Jen, on seeing Boonsong for the first time as a Monkey Ghost, asks, "Why did you grow your hair so long?" She could be anybody's Mom in that moment. The Monkey Ghosts, like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, are obviously people in ape suits, which makes them vaguely comical. Yet somehow Weerasethakul is able to tap and harmonize that with their utter mysteriousness and make it work.

Still, it must be said, to the extent that Uncle Boonmee works it works in pieces. I love the Monkey Ghosts and the nighttime jungle scenes. They are somber figures and weirdly, vitally alive. I like the emotional range of the picture, from sadness to joy with many shades between, alighting on them softly by turns. And Weerasethakul is also a master of integrating pop music into his movies, even though it's sparing—one or two songs at evocative points. Here it's only one song: "Acrophobia" by Penguin Villa, appearing in the last scenes at a karaoke place and then into the credits roll. A tremendous moment—perhaps set up by the almost complete lack of music anywhere else in the picture. (Here's a clip from the movie, music at about 0:50, but it is the ending and might work better in context.)

What a strange movie by this strange and strangely beloved director. A fourth high ranking for him sooner rather than later is not actually that improbable: Syndromes and a Century is presently at #55.

1 comment:

  1. Not easy--I concur. Of the three I've seen--this one, Cemetery of Splendor, and Syndromes and a Century--I was baffled and often bored by the first two, and I drifted through most of the third but did love the ending. I'd like to give that one another try, less sure about the other two.