Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives


Apichatchong Weerasethakul, 2010, 114m, Thailand, Palme d'Or 

Boonmee is a prosperous land-owner facing death. He lives with his wife and grown up son. As the end approaches, he is visited by his first wife who died nineteen years ago and a deceased son who has turned into a monkey like creature. In the netherworld of incipient death, he is able to recall his past lives, or imagines he can. The film alternates between two realities. One is the reality of Boonmee's house or farm or his car moving through the lush greenery. On the other side we find him moving through dark, damp forests with other-worldly rivers and grottoes, with brilliant psychedelic colors and lights. Indeed, it may well be a drug induced hallucination. There is a particularly haunting sequence where a palanquin born aging princess consigns herself to a pool at the foot of a dream like waterfall. Such is the general trend of the film. At best it may be regarded as presenting near death states or out of the body experiences.

Belief in life after death and the possibility of reincarnation are the underlying assumptions, as the title suggests. This is the lore of the East. The film ends up as a piece of pretty if exhausting gimmickry. It showcases the young director's cinematic talents but sentimentalizes death. It lacks the philosophical depth of films like Wit, A Taste of Cherry, or Goodbye Solo. Perhaps it can be commended for it's unusual, ever-pertinent if unanswerable theme of what happens to us after we die.

18 comments:

Nathanael Hood said...

My friend, I have no reservations or regrets saying that this was easily one of the WORST films that I have ever seen.

I actually just had a conversation with Seongyong over at her blog about this film...you can probably read it in the comment section of her Top Ten Films of 2010.

I actually went to see this film at the New York City Film Festival this past year where the director was in attendance. It was a brutally torturous film.

That's not to say that I misunderstood it. I completely understood WHAT it was trying to do.

You know, the best way to describe my feelings toward this film is to quote what Roger Ebert said about another controversial Palme d'Or winner, "Taste of Cherry":

"But is ``Taste of Cherry'' a worthwhile viewing experience? I say it is not."

S. M. Rana said...

Regarding "A Taste of Cherry" in particular and Kiarostami in particular, I have always felt that Ebert has a blind spot, as I nave expressed often in his comments section. He condescended to praise his latest, Certified Copy, which I have not seen. I have seen and reviewed more than half a dozen of his movies and loved EACH on of them. He is totally representative of the soil, culture and ethos of his land, which is closer to we guys than is the West. He is quiet, gentle and lyrical, and rings as true as Ray.

Regarding Boonmee, it has the weaknesses I pointed out,and don't think it deserved such a big award, but brutally torturous is too far, since, notwithstanding it's slow tempo, it does manage to convey a the Eastern view about death in a digestible form, maybe for the first time.

Nathanael Hood said...

Well...views of Roger Ebert's taste notwithstanding....

I think that it WAS a brutally tortuous film. As for whether or not it depicts Eastern views towards death...that may be true. But I have seen it done several times in other films...all of which I felt did it better.

I felt that Nobuo Nakagawa's "Jigoku," Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan," Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru," Nagisa Oshima's "Death by Hanging," and Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" all did a better job of examining Asian beliefs concerning death.

That's just my opinion, though. I'm sure you have a better grasp of this issue, of course.

Like I said, I understand what the director was trying to do. In addition, I can appreciate his vision and ideas...but that doesn't mean that I would WANT to or would ENJOY doing it.

S. M. Rana said...

"Ikiru" and "Death by Hanging" are more Western in their approach. Even Ray has half his moorings in the West. "Boonmee" is a mixture of belief in transmigration, as well as the kind of experiences researched by Elizabeth Kubler Ross of the Univ of Chicago. It has lots of pretty, psychedelic images and somewhere he reminded me of that horrifying Shyamalan movie, The Sixth Sense.

Nathanael Hood said...

Well...Kurosawa and Oshima were more Western in their film school training and therefore their films were more Western...kinda sorta.

But they were still operating from an Eastern idiom that I think can't be ignored.

S. M. Rana said...

I guess everything's kinda mixed up..compartments like east and west are evaporating, and everything has to stand on it's own legs..your own blog is proof ..a truly intercontinental spectrum of film..

Jack L said...

Excellent review, I've been interested in seeing this ever since it won at Cannes but I have been unable to find it anywhere near me, I hope I get to see it someday though...

kaist455 said...

This is calm, slow, and beautiful movie. However, it may sound strange, I was distantly absorbed in the movie. Despite the images that held my gaze, there is no story and character for us to hold on. In fact, even if you shuffle the scenes randomly, that will not make much difference.

Surely, there are several good scenes in the movie, and I still remember them, but I do not particularly love the movie. I respect the director's intention, but it does not move to reach my heart.

Nathanael Hood said...

kaist455: I completely agree. I have no problem with slow movies...if they have an intention. For example, I adore Robert Bresson's work. They're slow and methodological films...but they are always trying to prove something or say something...

Boonmee does neither.

It just...is.

Nathanael Hood said...

Yo, Rana.

I have a proposition.

How about we both try and watch every Palme d'Or winner?

S. M. Rana said...

@kaist455:Exactly. But it's better than Blissfully Yours, another movie by him which I saw. It's an above average kind of film on an unusual theme with some pretty camera work. The Golden Palm doesn't seem a reliable hallmark of greatness. It's general atmosphere of death as a murky, sordid and abhorrent affair affair reminds me of Shyamalan--something malodorous and sickly. The catheter is an apt symbol for the tone of the film.

S. M. Rana said...

@Nat: That's tough, 'cause I may have to gradually taper down my viewing..

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

S. M. Rana said...

@Jack L: It's a sad, sad film; a slow film and a pretty film, but not a great film, not a soul shaking one nor a hope inspiring one. It's a talented youngster's reverie on death, sentimental, glorificational and decorative.

I would suggest you to see it, prepared for the slowness.

S. M. Rana said...

A philosopher says: "First study death, then study other things." Maybe Weera did just that.

Nathanael Hood said...

Well...it's just an idea.

As for the nature of the Palme...

I think that Boonmee won because of political reasons. At the time of the festival, Thailand was undergoing major political upheaval. The director literally had to smuggle the film out of his country so it could play at Cannes. Usually, if a filmmaker has to go to such lengths, the Palme is guaranteed.

It's widely considered that "Taste of Cherry" won the Palme because the director also had to smuggle the film out of Iran.

S. M. Rana said...

@Nat: You may be right. Politics is the hallmark of decisions by committees, specially when votes are to be cast.

Nathanael Hood said...

True...but believe it or not...I kinda believe in the power of the Palme. The Palme d'Or has frequently been given to some of the greatest films ever made. So, even though it may be political, I still respect and love it.

That being said, I hope next year's pick is more...guided.

I was about to complain that it's been almost a decade since an American film won the Palme (I'm a patriot at heart)...but then I realized that India has NEVER won the Palme...

This needs to be fixed...

S. M. Rana said...

@ Nat:Well, I have no plans to go into movies whole hog, so the onus falls on you!!