Combustible Celluloid
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With: Thanapat Saisaymar, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Jenjira Pongpas, Matthieu Ly, Vien Pimdee
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Thai, with English subtitles
Running Time: 114
Date: 05/21/2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Monkey Ghosts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I have been a fan of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's for years, and his stature keeps growing. His films are becoming more and more acclaimed throughout the world. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is his fifth feature -- not counting a co-directed musical comedy called Iron Pussy -- and it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. However, they are no easier to understand. They are among the most mystical and mystifying films of our time.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives involves Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is dying of kidney failure. The most basic plot synopses I've seen simply explain that he experiences some of his past lives, but I'm afraid that description is a bit too pedestrian for what actually occurs in the movie.

Boonmee has decided to live out the rest of his days in comfort on his farm. He has a young male helper, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), also lends a hand. These three are enjoying dinner together when the ghost of Boonmee's dead wife suddenly materializes. Then his son Boonsong appears, having turned into a "monkey ghost," a creature with glowing eyes and totally covered with hair. Boonsong explains that, since Boonmee is dying, all the spirits are restless and are gathering around...

The film plays out, more or less, in segments. In one, Boonmee and Jen have a fairly normal conversation about life and love, and in another, we witness a sequence about some kind of princess who has an affair with one of her handmen. She sees her reflection in the water, which is more beautiful than she is, and her lover rejects her. But a magical fish makes his affections known, so the princess strips off her clothes, goes in the water, and... makes love with the fish.

Another sequence shows how Boonsong tried to study the monkey ghosts and became one of them, and an even more mysterious one shows a runaway water buffalo. Is the buffalo one of Boonmee's past lives? If so, what significance does it have? I'm not so sure that Weerasethakul even wants his viewers to ask these questions; I think he would rather we simply experience these images as dreams, or feelings. Of course, the entire movie takes place on the precipice of life and death, so it makes sense that some scenes are lucid and realistic, and others lapse into past lives or dreams or illusions or hallucinations without any kind of warning or transition.

Weerasethakul's previous four films (Mysterious Object at Noon, Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century) have all been about the transitory nature of storytelling, how a tale can be picked up or left off by anyone, anywhere, and how it changes depending on its narrator. (Along the way, some of his characters change into animals as well.) Uncle Boonmee is arguably his most beautiful, complex and most fully realized work to date, and he shows infinite promise for more crazy masterpieces to come.

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