Anyone who’s read this blog in May knows of the uber-love I feel for the Cannes Film Festival. That’s the festival that excites me most as a cinephile, because, more than any other, Cannes plays the films I want to see. So, after getting my pass, I was very excited to see that SDAFF was playing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, because, for the very first time, I would have a chance to see a Palme d’Or winner on the big screen. Thus far, I’ve been relegated to watching the big films from Cannes long after the fact on my admittedly much smaller (though still awesome!) LCD television.
Sadly, my excitement would die quickly enough once the film was underway. I could BS you with numerous platitudes and flowery descriptions, but I think that simplicity is the best way to go about this. Look, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives sucks. I find it staggering that it was seriously considered for the Palme, and even more so that it ended up the winner.
Whenever a jury is deciding awards, it’s bound to allow for interesting results. A small group of people is choosing from among a clearly defined sample of films, and, depending on the makeup of the jury, anything can happen. Certainly, it’s not surprising that any jury with Tim Burton as its president might choose a title that’s a bit further off the beaten path than most. Still, this year’s festival had a number of films that generated a lot of buzz that seemed to be major contenders for the Palme. Another Year, The Housemaid, Of Gods and Men, and Biutiful come to mind. So . . . what happened???
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the story of a dying man who lives on a farm in the midst of the jungle. As he nears the end of his life, his sister-in-law and a few other people come to be with him. It’s a quiet, meditative film. Now, just exactly WHAT it’s meditating on is something that I can’t tell you.
Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a clear penchant for long, unbroken takes that remind me of Antonioni more than anyone else. However, with Antonioni’s films, there was a latent sense of quiet desperation and a somewhat ambiguous sense of angst that made the pacing work to his advantage. Conversely, Weerasethakul tends to focus on things and objects for much longer than I’d argue is necessary. For example, take the first sequence of the film. A small group of people is camping(?) in a field with a water buffalo tied to a tree. The animal escapes and trots off, only to be retrieved by a man from the group. Let me tell you, I saw far more of that water buffalo than I wanted to. I found myself giving silent instructions to the director: “ok, aaaaaaand it’s time to cut now, dude.” Still, a proclivity for deliberately long takes isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It’s in the writing that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives falls short, and it’s really too bad, because the early going is promising. There’s a very strong scene where Boonmee and his sister-in-law are visited by the his dead wife's ghost and long-lost son, and the conversation swirls around the dead’s relationship with the living and the presence of spirits/ghosts in the world. It’s at that moment that the film peaks. Unfortunately, it’s almost all downhill from there.
Not long after, the film takes a left turn that it never recovers from. We’ve been on a farm in the present with Boonmee, and now . . . we’re in the forest about 300 years prior with an emotionally/sexually frustrated princess who ends up having sex . . . with a catfish??? And the CATFISH does most of the work? I kid you not. It doesn’t actually play nearly as disturbed as it sounds, but the sheer oddity of the shift in time/place/subject doesn’t make much sense within the narrative. Then, without any explanation, we’re back in the present and the film continues with the story of Boonmee, albeit without any explanation as to how and why things are happening as they are. By the time the film ends, I was completely lost. I still have no idea how, even in the strange, fantastical reality of the film, the final scene is possible.
Glimpses of a good film shine through in bits of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s a shame that those moments weren’t allowed to serve as the axis around which Weerasethakul could have framed the rest of the story. Then, it might have made for something truly meaningful. As it is, it’s an uneven, frustrating, and ultimately thankless experience.
1 ½ stars (out of 5)