Film: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (“Boonmee”) tells of the last days of Bonnmee, who is dieing of kidney failure. This Thai film was released in 2010, and won the Palme D’or. So you know it is going to be artsy to the max. The film was inspired by the book “A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives” by Phra Sripariyattiweti of Sang Arun Forest Monastery.

When I first saw the film, I thought it to be deathly slow and dull. I’m not the only one. Me an artsy films don’t get on too well at the best of times, either, for that matter.

Seriously. It’s a slow movie.

I decided to watch it again from a recording I made from Channel 4 from last night. On second viewing, it’s actually not that bad. Whilst I was very annoyed with the film on the first viewing, I was able to get into it on the second one.

One complaint that is levelled at the film is that for the first hour, the camera almost never moves. The thing is, I think that’s the director’s point! It gives the film a certain stillness and a serenity that Boonmee feels in his final days. The film mixes spirituality with the ordinariness of everyday existence. Everything is in flux, as lives move on, and yet everything has a continuity. During the last days of his life, Boonmee meets his dead wife, in the form of a ghost. His lost son comes back to see him, who has been transformed into a monkey ghost/spirit. His near-death apparently makes him more aware of the spirit-world, and likewise, the forest spirits can sense his impending death. I like it when his wife, Huay, as a ghost, said he was still in love with Boonmee, and that she visited Heaven, but there was nothing there.

Boonmee is, I guess, Thailand’s answer to David Lynch. Lynch ratchets up the action to a greater degree, though, and his surrealism knob goes all the way up to 11. Bonnmee is a much gentler film. Critics will say that the film contains a lot of irrelevant scenes, but I think their inclusion gives a deliberate sense of slowness of the pace and the illusoriness of existence. We’re all just living our lives of little drama in this whole infinitely rolling cosmos.

There is a scene involving a past life. A princess has “intimate relations” with a catfish. The princess is scarred, and aware of her own unattractiveness. She has a young handsome servant, and the film makes clear that there is some sexual relationship involved. She asks him if he would still love her if she was not a princess, but he doesn’t answer. On seeing her reflection in the water, she sees herself with a beautiful face. The catfish seems to have some magical power to make her see herself this way. It’s not clear whether, in a past life, Boonmee was the catfish or the princess.

Near the end of the film, we see Boonmee’s funeral. There is a monk there, who we later learn is a relative. Boonmee’s sister-in-law and daughter are later shown counting gifts of money in a hotel room. The monk joins them, without the knowledge of the monastery, and changes into ordinary civilian clothes. All three start to watch television in the hotel. He then tells them he feels hungry, so he and his sister decide to go to a cafe. The monk has a kind of out-of-body experience, where he sees himself and the two others watching television. The film closes where the monk and his sister are sitting in the cafe. This, once again, underscores how there’s a deeper spirituality mixed in with the ordinariness of everyday life.

Not your usual type of film. I was able to get into in on a second viewing, whereas I found it frustrating on the first. So be warned, this film will definitely not be of general audience interest.

About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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