Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Life - But is it any good?
'Arch and tedious' or 'a distinct creative vision'
Slow-burning Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives scooped the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but critics can't decide whether it's poetically beautiful or deathly dull. Two List film writers take sides on the issue
The worthy winner of this year’s Palme d’Or is an exciting and creative piece of cinema unlike any other.
Before Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was almost unheard of. His previous features Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours had barely been screened beyond film festivals and the odd arthouse cinema. What a difference winning the Palme d’Or can make. Suddenly the spotlight has fallen on this unique filmmaker, bringing to light some of the most exciting and inventive contemporary cinema seen for a long time.
Uncle Boonmee... tells the story of a young man who accompanies an elderly woman to see her terminally ill brother-in-law, where they encounter the spirit of his dead wife. It is released in cinemas this month, giving audiences the chance to experience what is without doubt a worthy recipient of the film world’s most highly respected prize, as well as one of the most distinctive Palme d’Or winners in recent years.
There is nothing quite like the cinematic worlds created by Apichatpong. The closest comparison is that of a dream world, where time and space is dislocated, memories entwine with fiction, stories unfold in a mysterious and unstructured manner and strange beasts and spirits exist alongside humans. What is most memorable about Apichatpong’s films, however, is the atmosphere: surreal and mysterious yet peaceful and quiet, often conveyed through slow, subtle camera movements and sparse dialogue.
Uncle Boonmee... presents a slice of cinema culture from a country whose films rarely reach our screens. In fact it is the first non-Western film to win the Palme d’Or in over ten years. And what a delight: there’s a fusion of Buddhism, stunning Thai landscapes and one surreal scene of a catfish seducing a young princess (apparently a tribute to old Thai films). The film also contains subtle references to the political situation in Apichatpong’s home country: it was made as part of a larger, cross-platform project called Primitive, which explores the border town of Nabua in Northern Thailand, a place with a long and troubled political history. Yet of those elements it is the Buddhist sensibility that feels most strongly imbued in the director’s work. As the title implies, reincarnation is a prominent theme and underlying the simple narrative is the idea that everything is part of a greater cycle, constantly changing and evolving.
This is an unhurried cinema, one that exists in opposition to the action-packed films of Hollywood. Uncle Boonmee... is a film to be submerged in, to soak up and to be enthralled by. Yet above all it is a film that shows distinct creative vision; it is unlike anything else you will see.
For many it was a surprise choice for this year’s Palme d’Or but with Tim Burton as head of the Festival Jury, and considering his own passion for surrealism and alternate worlds, it was perhaps not such an unlikely contender after all. No doubt Burton was thrilled to be able to open the door for the world to experience Apichatpong’s unique cinematic universe.
Uncle Boonmee is a film that says nothing and takes a very long time to say it.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film is as arch and tedious as any I’ve had the misfortune to catch during the bourgeois cineaste wallow that is Cannes in May. With it’s glacial pace, long static shots and whispered, largely indecipherable dialogue Uncle Boonmee manages to test its audience in rare and extremely boring ways. I agree with L’Express’ critic Eric Libiot when he notes that the film ‘never goes beyond the theoretical intentions of the director and uses dramatic arbitrariness as an artistic posture.’
The 40-year-old Weerasethakul has long been a festival favourite and it’s not difficult to see why. He’s from a privileged background (he has degrees in architecture and fine art), he is obsessed with his own homosexuality, has a thing about nature, folklore, fairytales and magic realism and works outside the strict Thai studio system. His equally trying previous films Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady can best be described as exercises in pantheistic homoeroticism, well a kind of anaemic appropriation of that, anyway.
On receiving the Palme D’Or Weerasethakul spoke of the serious current situation in his homeland and how he was depressed by the confrontation between different ideologies there, plus most gallingly he added: ‘I hope the news that Thailand has won an award for art and culture may help calm the situation.’ Really? Does he honestly think a highbrow award for his somnambulistic little film is really going to matter to those who are currently fighting tooth and nail to make sure Thailand doesn’t become another Burma? Of course he doesn’t. The biggest hits at the Thai box office are comedies and if and when his film ever gets a theatrical release there, it will, like his previous films, die the death that only decadent and rarefied art can.
Uncle Boonmee does have some moments of comedy. There’s a gorilla stricken by myxomatosis and a catfish capable of bringing a young lady to orgasm. It’s like a particularly pernicious Grimm fairytale directed by Emmanuelle director Just Jaekin in his 1970s heyday. For years now Weerasethakul and his public school filmmaker mates Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of a Black Tiger) and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) have been banging on about the unfairness of censorship in Thailand in some misguided belief that what the poor uneducated sons of daughters of Siam really need is to see are two Buddhist monks copulating while getting drunk. But the poor box office performance of any of these filmmakers’ uncensored films in so-called educated countries like the UK proves that, controversy aside, they are really just the kind of frustrating projects that put people off going to foreign language films for ever.
It was certainly slim pickings at Cannes this year and with Tim Burton heading up the jury the Palme D’Or was always going to be controversial. If only this year’s winner hadn’t been controversial in such a tedious and imperialist way. Uncle Boonmee is a film that says nothing and takes a very long time to say it – but as long as it makes the academic, the spoilt, the snobbish and the intellectually exclusive minority of cineastes happy then that’s OK then. Hang ‘em all high and hang ‘em long.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Life, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 19-Thu 25 Nov; GFT, Glasgow, Tue 14-Thu 16 Dec.
Cannes can sometimes get it wrong. Paul Dale picks the best and worst Palme D’Or winners
The Lost Weekend (1939)
The Some Like It Hot writer/director Billy Wilder’s brilliant comic study of alcoholism starring Ray Milland rightly took the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (a precursor of the Golden Palm) a year before the festival was closed down for the duration of the war.
The Leopard (1963)
Luchino Visconti out epics all the competition with this adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s tale of Sicilian aristocracy in decline.
Blow Up (1967)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s voguish portrait of fashion, media, sex and murder in Swinging London is cooler than an Ossie Clark dress.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Dissent, madness and vigilante politics in Vietnam War era New York won Martin Scorsese a gong and notoriety.
Paddy Chayefsky’s paper thin ‘oddball bachelor in search of love’ television drama was plainly remade by middle weight director Delbert Mann starring Rod Steiger. Pedestrian in the extreme.
The Knack...and How to Get It (1965)
Fresh from working with The Beatles’ on A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester made this contrived comedy about the generation gap starring TV’s Frank Spencer (Michael Crawford), Coronation Street star Ray Brooks and the big eyed Scouse girl from A Taste of Honey (Rita Tushingham), it may have been radical in its day but it’s dated badly.
The Silent World (1956)
The first and only one of two documentaries to ever win the Palme D’Or, The Silent World is oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and French filmmaker Louis Malle’s look at what lies beneath the world’s oceans. With the crew slaughtering sharks and Cousteau using dynamite near a coral reef it’s a portrait of the unspeakable in pursuit of filming the uneatable.
Best Intentions (1992)
Written by Ingmar Bergman this tells the story of his parents’ long and complex courtship. Very long and very yawn inspiring, the jury presumably nodded off and then felt guilty.