Sunday, October 17, 2010

LFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Craig from Dark Eye Socket here with the first of several reports from the 54th BFI London Film Festival. Dave started things off the other day with thoughts on festival opener Never Let Me Go and a grab bag of London delights, but first up for me is a trip to Thailand with this year's celebrated Palme d'Or winner.

Ah, Uncle Boonmee. You’ll now be able to add the LFF to your lifetime of recollections. File it alongside your many prestigious appearances at other key festivals this past year – the crowning achievement of a Palme d’Or ushering you toward us here in London. Apichatpong ('Joe') Weerasethakul’s latest hothouse bedazzlement, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is one of the LFF’s flagship titles. Keen festival followers may already be familiar with its plot, but a truncated version goes something like this: in the Thai countryside Uncle Boonmee is suffering from kidney failure; his final days are spent with family – both dead and alive, human and non-human – before he treks to a cave for his last moments.


Typical plot structure is prone to derailment by uncommon and unearthly visuals at any point; strange episodes (remembered moments from his past lives?) pepper the film. [spoilers] One sequence where a scarred princess has awkward, vigorous sex with a talking catfish is both absurdly compelling and stunningly filmed, and certainly something you won’t see anywhere else this, or any, year. Spectral visitations are a regular occurrence round gentle ol’ Boonmee’s house – making him a kind of lovely, reverse Scrooge – and are initially chilling, then rather becalming, especially the huge hair-covered beast with glowering red eyes who looms on a staircase before... sitting down for dinner. Boonmee’s long-deceased wife drops by, too; she materialises several times to the almost comical astonishment of the flesh Boonmee clan. [/spoilers] These characters baffle, but are indispensably alluring. When the film goes off on its wondrously weird whims it becomes pleasingly enigmatic.


Weerasethakul’s films often get posited as litmus tests of the true filmgoer’s arthouse mettle. (Just below ticking off titles on a Béla Tarr checklist.) There’s always guaranteed something soothingly elegiac to be taken from his work; something not always readily graspable, but inarguably extraordinary and sometimes belatedly fulfilling. But with Boonmee there’s a hint of strained repetition in the way he structures and presents – albeit still subtly, and with delicate, personable care – his sparse story. Familiar conceptual totems are present; wondrous shot compositions are correct. But is Weerasethakul in danger of prematurely recycling his already well-used ideas? Both his last two features Tropical Malady and Syndromes of a Century were delightfully invigorating – even during their moments of stasis – but at times Boonmee often feels more like an extension of the same old, same old. I could recall his past films far too easily. (And, for me, the two film "recollections" from his recent ‘Primitive’ installation, Phantom of Nabua and this film’s precursor/side project, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, served his core concerns well enough.) Still, more hulking, red-eyed jungle beasts wouldn’t go amiss next time. C+

Uncle Boonmee will be reincarnated at the LFF on Sunday 17th and Monday 18th October
related articles: Nathaniel's review from NYFF and Oscar's Best Foreign Film Competitive List.

7 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

I'm seeing a common thread in reviews about UNCLE BOONMEE. People who have seen all/most of Joe's pictures are less then enthused. People (like me) who have only seen 2 or 3 are more bewitched.

so i understand the repetitive criticism.

but damn that dinner scene early in the pictures (with the two visitors) is SO good.

kenjfuj said...

I had only seen one film of his—Syndromes and a Century—before seeing Uncle Boonmee recently, and I loved his new one. A friend of mine has, I'm pretty sure, seen most, if not all, of his films before seeing Uncle Boonmee at Toronto last month, and he liked it but not as much as his other work. So perhaps there's something to that. Still, I do know some people who were just as enthralled with Uncle Boonmee as they were with his previous films.

NATHANIEL R said...

I suppose i must investigate the other films. having only seen Tropical Malady before this one.

James Hansen said...

I've seen pretty much everything he has made (all the features plus the went to both his short programs when he was at Anthology a few years ago) save some of the installation stuff. For my money, he's the best movie maker on the planet right now and is one of the only directors pushing cinema into new, exciting directions.

That said, I've read some of the same criticism of BOONMEE - that it's redundant and not as exciting as some of the other films - but I think multiple viewings reveal slight interior shifts that show Joe being more subtly deceptive (in a good way) than in the more obvious splits in Malady/Syndromes. I'm not sure I "like" this one better than either of those, but it's still very solid. The way it embeds place, family, and time is astounding. Anyone thinking Joe is on auto-pilot should read Mark Peranson's interview with Joe in CinemaScope. It provides some clues to unlock the mystery and see the film as a lot more than it first appears. Yes indeedy, it's another Joe masterpiece.

James Hansen said...

Another note- I have to disagree pretty strongly that Joe is repeating already "well-used ideas." He's only doing that in the broadest of terms (ie - mysticism, forest, re-incarnation). We have to look closer at the refinition of the scenes (such as the dinner scene, the incredible photography sequence, the subtle shifts in genre of each film reel (noticed that idea from Peranson/Joe). There's a lot more going on than first meets this eye and it's going way beyond overused "theme" criticism.

(Sorry if I'm going crazy here...I just really love Joe).

Roark said...

already falling back on too familiar ideas? seriously? it's not like we're talking about clerks 2 here, for god's sake.

i suppose the writer thinks 99% of woody allen, ingmar bergman, fellini, john ford and yasujiro ozu movies are a little too "same old, same old" too, eh? what a crock...

NATHANIEL R said...

james -- we always welcome passion here. especially for great filmmakers. i agree that the photography sequence is pretty astounding. even though it totally bewildered me at the time.

roark -- now i think you're putting words in craig's mouth. In seems to me that most of the great auteurs receive this criticism from time to time... their weaker efforts are seen as retreads. The thing with great directors though is that people can't sometimes come to an agreement about which efforts are the weaker ones ;)