Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Stars: Thanapat Saisayamar.
This slow-paced and quietly meditative Thai drama about death, mortality, spirituality and reincarnation is the first film from Thailand to be awarded the Palme D’Or, the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival. Often the judges at Cannes have awarded their top prize to more obscure and pretentious art house films from earnest and largely unknown directors. The latest film from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was deemed worthy of that prize, but it is a film that is certain to divide audiences.
Weerasethakul worked as an architect and a multi-media artist before turning his creative talents to the medium of film, and his background is reflected in the look and mood of his challenging films like Mysterious Objects At Noon and Tropical Malady, etc. Uncle Boonmee Who Can recall His Past Lives is the final chapter in Weerasethakul’s series Primitive, which deals with ideas of memory and extinction and it focuses more on its melancholy mood rather than narrative.
Past and present, real and supernatural deftly intermingle in an ethereal and deeply spiritual landscape that eschews the formal conventions and rules of cinema. Its dream-like visuals are superb, but the loose narrative however is often quite impenetrable and will have audiences scratching their heads in bewilderment. It seems that in awarding the prize to this almost impenetrable film, the judges again have shown that they are out of touch with the tastes of the general movie going public. Weerasethakul weaves an air of mysticism, heightened reality and supernatural throughout his leisurely paced drama. Much of the film seems to be drawing upon symbolism and moments of cultural significance that will no doubt mean something to Thai audiences.
Boonmee (Thanapat Saisayamar) is an ailing farmer who is dying of kidney cancer. But in the days leading up to his death he revisits a number of places that are important to him both physically and spiritually. He calmly reflects on his past incarnations. At a quiet dinner party he is also visited by the ghosts of his wife and his long lost son, who appears as a sort of monkey man with glowing red eyes. But even weirder is the later scene in which a beautiful but aging princess lies down near a waterfall and is pleasured by a catfish.
There is very little action here, and the characters largely remain still and static for much of the film. The actors deliver non-performances. However, the film has been beautifully shot in 16mm, and cinematographers Yukontom Mingmongkon and Sayombu Mutdeeprom capture some startling images of the verdant jungles and landscapes. The film consists mainly of a series of long static shots that go on interminably, often straining the audience’s patience. Despite its beautiful, lush visuals, I found the film monotonous, dull and uninvolving, and almost experimental in nature.
One of the producers is American actor Danny Glover. Obviously the jury at the Cannes Film Festival this year saw something in this elusive, enigmatic and ultimately dull drama that eludes the casual filmgoer or more mainstream audiences.