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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
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by Jay Seaver

"Some are just too odd to forget."
4 stars

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" is a weird one; writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes us to a forest teeming with life to deliver a quiet meditation on life, death, and rebirth. It's graceful and nonsensical, maybe not for all tastes but perhaps for more than one might imagine.

Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying. There's cancer in his kidneys, and though he's not entirely bedridden, he knows the end is near. So he's called what's left of his family to his farm - his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), Soon, though, he finds himself with other visitors - his late wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). Clearly, the border between this life and the next is growing extremely thin.

In some movies, that would be the springboard for a fantasy story; in this one, the likes of ghosts and monkey spirits are simply accepted, for the most part. Not blandly - several scenes which involve the monkey spirits are in fact rather unnerving; their glowing red eyes and dark silhouettes make them clearly other, if not threatening. These manifestations are not part of everyday life, but they are things which do not require explanation - the forest contains spirits, and imprints of the living linger and do appreciate offerings. Indeed, while the characters seldom comment upon the supernatural creatures which appear around them - Jen quite frequently seems more worried about the Laotian workers Boonmee has hired than her dead sister reappearing - it clearly has an effect on them in the closing scenes.

Perhaps the strange final scene is a metaphorical comment on that, illustrating that their time with the dying Boonmee has left them aware that their spirits are not only tied to their bodies but free to be part of a larger world. That final scene is one of several without an obvious explanation: Both the opening sequence with a buffalo that wanders from its herders and a downright peculiar bit involving a princess and a fish in the middle are likely recollections of Boonmee's past lives, but they are presented without narration, so we can't be sure whether Boonmee is human or animal in those incarnations. Some audiences will find that maddening, while others may enjoy the ambiguity.

What's not ambiguous is that Weerasethakul has made a beautiful film. Thai films often have a leg up on looking striking just from pointing the camera in a random direction, whether from the haze of the crowded cities or the beauty of the undeveloped areas, and its filmmakers know how to use those resources to good effect. The jungle here, for instance, is green and teeming with life but never shot in such a way that it seems oppressive. The beautiful environs are just part of it; cinematographers Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom get the most out of every location, inside and out. The makeup job/costume on the monkey ghosts is very nice too - excellent when seen from a distance, quite acceptable up close.

That's about right for the cast, too. They fit the roles they are given, which is that of relatively plain-spoken people who don't necessarily have a lot to say. An extended piece of the movie is a conversation at a dinner table, and it's realistically straightforward and circumspect, not the work of actors playing to the balconies. Thanapat Saisaymar, a construction worker and part-time actor, is fine; his apparent lack of technique serves to give Boonmee an unaffected serenity. Much of the performance is just in the way the actors carry themselves - Boonmee's and Jen's afflictions reminding us of the imperfect state of human existence, the uncertainty Sakda Kaewbuadee shows as Tong at the end.

"Uncle Boonmee" is a film that has its mind on grand, universal concepts, and puts them across in a way that goes down fairly easily. It's quiet and probably in the "not-for-everyone" category, but will likely resonate with many who do see it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20666&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/26/11 12:49:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2010 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  02-Mar-2011 (NR)
  DVD: 12-Jul-2011

  19-Nov-2010 (12A)

  02-Mar-2011 (M)
  DVD: 12-Jul-2011

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