Film: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives ****
(PG, limited release)
Published 19/11/2010 | 05:00
If I watched Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives 10 times, I would come away each time with a different take on it -- and how many films can you say that about?
The winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, Uncle Boonmee... is not so much a drama as a dreamlike meditation on life, death, transformation and regret.
It's also a celebration of the almost limitless possibilities of cinema.
Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is suffering from kidney failure, and retires to his boyhood home in Thailand's rural northeast to prepare for death.
His sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongras), and a young cousin come to care for him and, though they insist he's going to rally, Boonmee is sure he'll shortly die. In facing it, he becomes philosophical, finding comfort in a deep love of nature and memories of loves past.
One night, when Boonmee and Jen are having dinner on their verandah, the ghost of his late wife appears at the end of the table to offer her husband advice on how to welcome death. Then his dead son appears, in the guise of a kind of ghost monkey, to explain that the spirits of the dead are gathering in the forest to await his impending passing.
All of this, I grant you, sounds unhinged, but somehow in the watching it all makes perfect sense. In the deep, dark countryside, ghosts come and go with ease, man and nature seem profoundly interlinked and the Buddhist ideas of reincarnation seem the only rational explanation for it all.
As Boonmee's strength fails, things become ever more clear to him: he has dreams about the past and the future, and seems to recall previous lives and incarnations.
Weerasethakul's film is artfully split into six chapters that vary hugely in style and mood, and work playfully with the conventions of cinema. The inevitability of regret is investigated, as is Thailand's recent violent history, which is contrasted with the tranquil equanimity of traditional Buddhist beliefs.
In the film's most mesmerising sequence, an elderly princess, who cannot accept the loss of her beauty, is comforted and seduced by a talking catfish who may or may not be Boonmee.
It's a beautiful, baffling, bewildering and strangely illuminating film, and you get the sense while watching it that some profound truth about humanity is floating just beneath the surface and frustratingly out of reach.