"Ghosts aren't attached to places, but to people, to the living." - Huay
The inevitability of death hangs loosely in the back of all our minds, gently and unconsciously whispering unintelligible promises of restful peace and perpetual doom. Though our paths may differ greatly, in the end, we shall all arrive at the same unknowable destination, a foggy undiscovered country of guess and conjecture, of nightmares and dreams, of infinite rebirths, or perhaps, of mere, unending silence. Scientists, philosophers, theologians, and artists have painted various pictures of death and all of its intricacies over the years, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's experimental film 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,' attempts to probe these same deep waters. Winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the esoteric film is actually part of a much larger artistic endeavor from the director. Titled 'Primitive,' the medium-crossing project also includes several video installations and short films, all dealing with similar themes and subject matter. I first became familiar with the director's works when my own short film, 'Broken Records,' screened in competition alongside Weerasethakul's short 'A Letter to Uncle Boonmee,' as part of a program of eight experimental pieces at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival (we both lost to this sick, strange little gem). 'A Letter to Uncle Boonmee' (included in the supplements on this disc) serves as a very loose companion to the film, and features similar concepts and stylistic choices as its feature length counterpart. A sometimes frustrating, but ultimately worthwhile experience, 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,' creates an eerie atmosphere of supernatural intrigue, dreamy, metaphysical ruminations, light humor, occasional pretentious nonsense, and sumptuous, mysterious images, that burrow deep into the mind and soul, where they linger for days to come.
The official plot summary for 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,' indicates that the movie is about a dying old man who remembers his numerous, previous lives and incarnations before he passes on. While that sounds interesting enough, that really isn't the story. Though reflections on mortality and the past play a key role in the proceedings, and certain sequences could theoretically fit in with the idea of representing Boonmee's past lives, that summary is still extremely misleading, and in many ways downright incorrect. In fact, the movie probably shouldn't even be titled 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,' and my misinformed notion of the plot actually led to a slightly compromised initial viewing experience, since I kept waiting for this aspect of the story to kick in. With all of that said, the reality is, Weerasethakul's film is actually much more interesting than it's deceptive title or simplified summary implies, and traditional plot really isn't much of a factor at all, with the filmmaker instead relying on images and pure cinema to evoke tones, emotions, and ideas, in ways that sometimes stretch the very limits of the medium.
The loose narrative that is present, follows a kind but terminally ill man, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), as he is cared for by his sister and nephew during his final days alive. While staying in an old village, the three are visited by an apparition of Boonmee's deceased wife, Huay, and a strange ape/human hybrid (called a monkey ghost), who claims to be Boonmee's long lost son. The two otherworldly guests sense that Boonmee's time is nearly up, and what follows is a strange, cryptic, sometimes senseless, but frequently affecting piece of art, that gently examines the mysteries of life, death, and memory.
The bulk of the picture is made up of slow, reflective conversations between Boonmee and his various family members, supernatural and living alike. Interspersed between these more naturalistic sequences, are episodic breaks into the mystical and oblique, including a flashback explaining the origins of Boonmee's ghost monkey child, and a seemingly unrelated parable about an aging princess who has sex with a fish. Yes, you read that correctly, this film features a scene in which a woman makes love to a fish. I assure you though, it's very tastefully and artfully done, well, at least as tastefully and artfully done as a scene featuring a woman screwing a fish can hope to be. Odd instances of bestiality aside, the film seems to be well aware of its eccentricities, and the director does inject some light humor into the proceedings to counteract any potential pretentiousness (unfortunately, this doesn't always work). On that same note, even though it spends most of its running time seeped in the avant-garde, there are still several genuinely touching, traditional scenes, that demonstrate strong character work, including a rather tender exchange between Boonmee and his ghostly wife, where the dying man expresses his fear of not being able to find his love in the afterlife.
Weerasethakul uses a slow, contemplative visual style, featuring many long, lingering shots of nature and insignificant actions, drawing the viewer into a quiet, thoughtful rhythm. Many scenes are shot in wide, almost documentary style masters that keep the audience at a slight distance from the characters. Ambient sound effects are also used to great effect, creating a palpable sense of place and immersion within the natural world. Many isolated scenes and sequences feature truly mesmerizing images, including one particularly memorable shot of ominous, glowing red eyes hanging still among the trees, and a beautiful climax which sees Boonmee and his family take a trip through a sparkling cave into the outermost reaches of the unknown. Perhaps inspired by Chris Marker's seminal work, 'La Jetée,' Weerasethakul even includes a sequence told in still images and voice over, predicting a strange and hostile future. While the exact significance of each odd and bewildering image or interaction remains ambiguous, the visuals themselves carry on an almost transcendent quality, often creating actual purpose out of pure emotion and mood.
Despite its interesting visuals and unique structure, I do have some issues with the film's balance of narrative and experimental elements. In many ways, my problems with the movie mirror those that I expressed for another surreal effort, Louis Malle's 'Black Moon.' While Weerasethakul mostly succeeds where Malle failed, by littering his work with dense, powerful visuals and sequences, there are still instances in which concepts and stylistic choices simply come across as hollow and pretentious. In his fusion of traditional story and experimentation, Weerasethakul seemingly wants to have his cake and eat it too. In some ways, films like this seem to take advantage of the term "experimental," in order to gain free rein to do as they please with no regard to the structure and logic that they themselves have laid out in other scenes. When more traditional plot elements become uneven or nonsensical, the director can simply fall back upon the claim that the work is a purely symbolic piece. For films that are wholly experimental in nature (like those of Stan Brakhage) this isn't an issue, but for movies that are still partially narrative in structure and goal, this can be something of a cop out, and there are indeed moments here that feel just like that. Thankfully, these instances are the exception rather than the rule, and 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' mostly plays like a stylistically deep and cinematically significant achievement.
This is the type of work that plays best when one simply lets its images wash over them, free of traditional associations and structural expectations. While the film's vague metaphysical ruminations are not always as profound or interesting as the filmmaker intends, Weerasethakul has created a truly dense and personal movie, which examines the concepts of death, transformation, and our shifting loyalties from the serenity of nature toward the emptiness of the modern world. It may not be the masterpiece that some critics have claimed it to be, and its often impenetrable qualities certainly won't be for everyone, but 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' is a worthwhile piece of filmmaking that more adventurous viewers should not hesitate to seek out.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Strand Releasing brings 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc. My screener copy did not come in a final retail package, so I can't speak to the box itself, though I would assume it comes housed in a standard Blu-ray case. After some warnings and logos, the disc transitions to a standard menu. It is worth noting that I did encounter some minor issues with the menu navigation freezing up and becoming unresponsive. I'm not sure if this occasional sluggishness is isolated to review screeners, but either way it was only a slight inconvenience.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Though the cinematography itself is strong, there are some technical shortcomings that hold back the presentation.
Shot on 16mm film, the print is in good shape, with some visible grain throughout. Unfortunately, some video noise and signs of artifacting, including isolated macro blocking and posterization, are also present periodically. Detail is OK, but never impressive, and the picture has a rather soft and flat look to it. Colors are rich, showing off some lush green hues in jungle scenes. Black levels are solid and whites are fine, leading to a good sense of apparent contrast.
'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' features some truly beautiful images, but the video transfer leaves a bit to be desired. While an overall lack of detail can be attributed to the 16mm roots of the cinematography, some other technical issues are clearly the results of a subpar digital transfer. This doesn't look bad, but it could have looked better.
The movie is presented with a Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 track with hardcoded English subtitles. The film's sound design is subtle but interesting, and the director uses ambient sounds to great effect.
Dialogue is clear and free of distortion or pops. Directionality is pretty minimal, but the mix features some immersive effects work, surrounding the listener with a gentle symphony of crickets and chirping birds. The enveloping sounds of nature add a lot to the mood, and the track does a great job of creating a rich, but not terribly varied soundscape. Dynamic range is pretty flatlined, and bass activity is minimal. Balance within the mix is done well, and the jungle effects never overpower the characters' speech.
This isn't exactly a lively audio track, but the presentation suits the film and adds an artistic layer to the proceedings. It would have been nice if the mix was lossless, and hardcoded subtitles can be a bit of an annoyance to some, but this is still a solid track.
Strand Releasing has included a solid collection of supplements, including a related short film, an interview with the director, and deleted scenes. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Thai Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and hardcoded English subtitles, unless noted otherwise.
'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' is not without faults, but its unique, and often stirring, dreamy images create an experience that is certainly worthwhile. The video quality is bogged down a bit by some technical issues, and while not lossless, the audio is solid. Supplements include some interesting material, making this a decent, but not great disc. Fans of the avant-garde will definitely want to check this out, though others should proceed with caution.