Blindspot Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Spirited Away

Uncle Boonmee monkeys

This is the eighth post in my Blindspot review series. I will continue to publish one like it each month for the rest of 2015.

In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the titular character is dying from kidney failure. The film is slow – slow cinema slow – but this slowness takes on profound weight in light of this plot line. With death forthcoming, we become unusually sensitive to time’s passing – the way the story crawls and at points seems to stand still, the way the shots last for minutes on end. The smallest movements are granted tremendous significance, as they seem to resist through physical action the stillness associated with death. Simultaneously, the melancholy sluggishness with which they are performed – as when a woman lazily zaps mosquitoes with an electric swatter, or an ox ambles casually through a field of grass – appear to convey a resignation to time’s inevitable trajectory. Near the end of the film, the cinematic moving image is traded out for a montage of still photographs, evoking the photo development scene from Blow-Up or the majority of scenes in La Jetée. The dynamic “aliveness” of cinema has ceased to be. Is the film itself mourning, through direct embodiment, the impending death of its protagonist?*

I have no definitive answer, but I do know that, with Uncle Boonmee, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has crafted an exquisite film whose enigmatic quality mirrors the mysteriousness of its subject matter: dying, death, and the beyond. But the film’s religious angle is Eastern rather than Western, and imbued with what I’m guessing are elements from Thai folklore. Instead of establishing a definitive split between the here and the hereafter, the film introduces us to a world where the living and the dead intermingle with creatures of an in-between state, all of whom seem to exist in a kind of harmony. In Uncle Boonmee, to die isn’t to pass away, but to pass into a different form, to become reincarnated or otherwise transformed.

In its blending of subdued, Ozu-style naturalism and a matter-of-fact attitude toward the otherworldly, Uncle Boonmee can best be characterized as a work of magical realism inflected with traces of Miyazaki (the similarities between Weerasethakul and the Ghibli legend was brought to my attention by David Liu of Kino Obscura). Comedy arises in scenes where the earthly encounters the mystical, as when the ghost of Boonmee’s deceased wife materializes unexpectedly at the dinner table in his rural home. We expect pandemonium to ensue, but the appearance of the ghost – and a few minutes later, a red-eyed neanderthal who reveals himself to be Boonmee’s long-lost son – produces only mild alarm in the other characters. Of course, such acceptance of the fantastical by an otherwise mundane world is part and parcel to magical realism, but still, the characters’ understated reactions are a hoot. Best of all is when Boonmee’s caretaker strolls in midway through this most unusual of suppers and gawks at the hairy son. “It’s an ape!” he exclaims. His level of surprise is funny for being more in line with a “normal” reaction, and funnier still for not quite reaching it.

The droll humor is more prominent than you might expect in a film about death, but it takes nothing away from the film’s loveliness, which emanates from the images and the same air of understatement as applied not to comedy but to more devastating emotions like fear and grief. On the one hand, Weerasethakul has created a panoply of sublime tableaus for us to soak in: a cave aglitter with minerals, a woman sleeping behind vaporous curtains, a mythic princess riding a caravan through the woods. The film itself has the quality of a lucid dream, transporting us to a strange oneiric space where every scene and encounter feels charged with hidden meaning.

On the other end of the spectrum are the film’s characters who, while not quite stoic, face death with only a minimal amount of commotion. Boonmee admits his trepidation about dying at one point, and his sister-in-law’s gentle expressions of sorrow are genuinely heartbreaking, but all of this amounts to less ado about death than most films I’ve seen. True, the fantastical rules of Boonmee’s world comfort the characters with the knowledge that they will still live on after dying, a comfort not shared by most denizens of our own “rational” extra-diegetic society. Still, Uncle Boonmee was released in 2011, meaning its fictive elements were intended to resonate with a 21st century audience living in this time, this world. From the vantage point of said audience, many of whom are still terrified by the idea of the mysterious beyond, there is something touching about watching the universal experience of death faced with such grace. Grade: A-

* The association between photographic stillness and death was brought to my attention by Laura Mulvey’s book Death 24x a Second. It’s a fascinating read, I’d definitely recommend it.

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