By Brian Lafferty
June 3, 2011 (San Diego) – Ever since my mother died there have been times when I've imagined my mother’s spirit being around me. I fantasize being able to speak to her, telling her how I feel, asking her what it’s like on the other side.
Of course, that’s pure fantasy, at least in real life. In reel life, however, anything can happen. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives explores this possibility but it does so much more. The year is only halfway through but the chances are high that this will be on my Top Ten list come December.
Uncle Boonmee is dying of kidney failure. His sister-in-law and nephew take him to his farm where he will live his last days. Joining him is the ghost of his dead wife and his son, who now resembles what looks like a human and monkey hybrid. In between the philosophical discussions are the past lives that he recalls, including being a cow and a princess who has sexual intercourse with a talking catfish.
My favorite scene was the dinner table conversation with the spirits of his wife and inhuman son. A spiritual family reunion, it is simultaneously mystical and real. The supernatural overtones and characters comprise the former. The realism comes from the honest interactions and conversations between the living and the dead, as well as the naturalistic true-to-life undertones that counterbalance the fantastical.
Much of the movie contains ruminations over life and death. Conversations include Boonmee asking his deceased wife where he can find her when he dies. At one point she says, “Heaven is overrated. There’s nothing there.” These conversations are quiet, intelligent, and touching. Uncle Boonmee captures the feeling of happiness, of closure, of elevation, of being able to not only see your deceased loved one for the first time in years but to just be able to talk to her.
Interestingly, however, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the dialogue. I didn’t feel I missed anything; I understood a lot that was going on. Not only does the movie boast rich, meditative images but the philosophical dialogue is a bonus if you’re willing to peek at the subtitles.
The director utilizes wide shots and long takes. Rarely is a character photographed any closer than a medium shot. These allow us to take in the beauty of the jungle, forest, and cave. Each frame has the quality of an impressionist painting. The camera often stays still but takes often run at least a minute or two.
These long takes emphasize the serenity that permeates Uncle Boonmee. Rarely have I seen a movie so meditative and contemplative. It doesn’t do too much and that’s why it succeeds so well. Like Meek’s Cutoff, it requires you to sit back, relax, and just take it in. Just like the title character, the movie is always at peace.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is now playing at the Reading Gaslamp.
A Strand Releasing release. Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Screenplay: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cinematography: Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Tongaram. In Thai with English subtitles. Unrated. 114 minutes.