Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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I didn’t respond to this film in quite the same way I did to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Slendour (2015), but I’m fascinated all the same by the stillness, thoughtfulness and mundane surreality of intersecting planes of existence and time that shows up in both films.

Where Cemetery of Splendour spent more time with moments of absolute stillness or the rhythmic quality of scenes devoid of human intervention, Uncle Bonmee spends a lot more time in conversation amongst its characters.  The meditative stillness remains, but it at times feels at odds with the way the characters speak and what they speak out.  Parts of the movie tell you, through their dialogue, what the film wants to interrogate, and parts of the movie show you through the way it frames these characters or keeps them at a distance.

It’s a curiosity of a movie to be sure, a story about a man not far from death who can allegedly remember his own past lives, only we never see this in the film.  The title instead (derived from a 1983 story) feels like a more spectacular, attention-grabbing encapsulation of what the movie is about at its core.

So while Uncle Boonmee doesn’t explicitly acknowledge who he might’ve once been, the film makes you aware of people who have gone before us and the mystery of where we might go when we die.  It’s very much concerned with the unknown space in between life in death, both in terms of geography and time.

There’s also a long sequence in the middle of the film that follows an aging princess who sees in her reflection her much younger self.  She longs for youth and becomes enamored with a catfish that speaks to her and claims to see her how she wants to be seen.  What follows can be seen as anything from audacious to slapstick.

Much of the film, in fact, borders tonally on things that could feel majestic in their originality or downright cringe worthy.  It depends on whether or not you give yourself over to the experience or keep your guard up.

The film’s poster,  for example, features a dark creature with glowing red eyes.  The image is certainly striking and remains so when the character is first seen.  Then he walks into the light and begins to look somewhat like a person in a cheap gorilla costume.  This moment quickly undermines any mystery surrounding the character, particularly as calmly reveals who he is and how he came to look this way, but that’s also very much the point.

Any fear surrounding this supernatural creature is stripped away so that he becomes, if anything, a rather tragic figure.  We quickly realize that he is not meant to be seen as anything other than us, rather as an extension of us, perhaps something inside of us pulled out and personified.  He is more than his image, and the quickness with which we are meant to see him as mundane helps shift our point of view to reflect that of the central characters, Uncle Boonmee and Jen.

They meet ghosts from their own past who appear calmly out of thin air, soon to escort Uncle Boonmee to the other side.  When his wife, her sister, fades in during a dinner conversation, they talk to her like she has simple returned from a long time away.  Her departure and subsequent return is never considered to be final, just her most recent incarnation.  It helps sell the idea that our bodies are impermanent, just the vessels through which we briefly manifest.

The movie has other mysteries to it, some which it feels like we’re privy to and others which we can only wonder about.  It’s a bit of a labyrinth but presented so calmly that you figure all the answers, if there are meant to be any, are there.  This is just one consideration for the present existence of ghosts, spirits and creatures, all meant to downplay the importance, I believe, of our present state.  We change, just as water evaporates.

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