Sunday, March 4, 2012

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives is the latest gem from the Thailand's New Wave director Weerasethakul. Uncle Boonmee, the central character of the film, is a successful tamarind farmer who has made a place of abode in a pristine forest in Northeast Thailand. He is at the doorstep of death and therefore has decided to spend the last few days of his life surrounded by nature. Having realized that he is about to transfer from the "material world" to the "uncharted territory of death", he starts reminiscing about his past life, death, and beyond. Boonmee's reflective persona is facilitated by time spent in the forest which speaks the language of silence, punctuated by rhythmic utterances by nature: swaying sounds of trees, humming crickets, and melodic birds. In stark contrast to establishing Boonmee's character as a nature lover, the film also provides certain glimpses into cruel and  materialistic aspects of Boonmee's character like killing of the "commies" for which Boonmee appears to be remorseful and guilty. Thus Uncle Boonmee presents a familiar combination of good and bad life choices that define typical human nature. In his last journey, Boonmee is accompanied by people who are linked to him by known and unknown tokens of identity: sister-in-law whose parasitic existence on nature is starkly juxtaposed with Boonmee’s cosmic love and respect for nature. On the other hand the character of the illegal immigrant, who is in search of a fresh identity, is a skilful ploy by Weerasethakul to accentuate the discriminatory treatment of people by people on the basis of geography, history, and politics. But these aren’t the only characters who visit Boonmee. He is soon unexpectedly visited by his long-dead wife and long-vanished and dead son, who is transmogrified into a monkey-ghost. In sum, by exploiting these surreal elements (natural atmosphere, fantasy-like characters, aural anatomy of a forest, and brilliant choice of images) Weerasethakul creates a unique setting that is conducive to undisturbed contemplation about life, death, and beyond. From thereon the film touches upon some profoundly deep concepts of philosophical nature. Boonmee is in two minds about his impending death. On one hand, death will allow him to bond with his deceased wife. On the other hand, death will transfer him to a world that is filled with fear, anxiety, strangeness as alluded  to him by his dead son. At this time the film infuses fantasy into reality to delve deep into Boonmee's psyche. Boonmee's past "lives" (re-embodiments) rise before him as outcomes of his meditative state . His re-embodiments include a tethered buffalo that unshackles itself and escapes to the mystical forest in the pursuit of freedom and nature, and a cat fish who performs sex acts on a princess who is trying to regain youth and beauty. We are never told as to why "these" re-embodiments are particularly chosen for Boonmee and what conclusions ensue from their study. Weerasethakul apparently uses these fantastical characters to portray Boonmee's views toward nature and man and earthly desires. The art of marrying fantasy-like characters to mundane details of human life is an important element of Weerasethakul's films (Blissfully YoursSyndrome and A Century, and Tropical Malady). By doing so, Weerasethakul creates a film language that manifests itself best by exploiting monotony of life (as we know it) and infusing fantasy into that dull life that are ably aided by magnificent aural and visual compositions. There are some scenes or themes in the film that deserve a special mention. The parasitic existence of humans on nature is exemplified by the superb cutting techniques where in one scene the sister-in-law lays claims to nature’s bounty when in the next she deprives the smallest of the small insects of their life. Ideas of oneness of man and nature and reincarnation are represented by various animal figures like the buffalo, the catfish, and the ghost that are presumably the various re-embodiments of Boonmee. Weerasethakul’s mastery of the cinematic art manifests itself at the dinner table where two alive human beings, a monkey-ghost, and a dead person share an uncanny evening and yet we never feel the awkwardness of the scene for a moment. The director mixes fantasy with reality with such a gentle touch of humor. The most profound and unearthly moments of the film take place when a catfish performs cunnilingus on a princess in the jungle, when the catfish finds beauty in the same princess who is judged as ugly by a man in the moment before. The illusory nature of human beauty  and the non-discriminatory character of nature are placed in direct contrast to each other. One of the last few scenes where a monk "unshackles" himself from the spiritual jersey, gets inside a modern piece of clothing, and indulges in loud pop music immediately establish a pretentious understanding of spiritual freedom. The scene gives us an inkling of the thin line that exists between ritual-centric religious practices in everyday life and true enlightenment of the soul. The beauty of the film lies in its magical ability to blend heavy concepts like memory, identity, life, and death in a playful manner. The imagery is suitably slow paced and phenomenologically enriching. The frames sometimes project images that can be found in a typical documentary film (the last part mostly), or images that can be found in a mise-en-scene cinematic style (the parts with the princess) to capture the underlying thematic sensibilities of the film. Thus by intermingling rich interpretations of man and nature, by mixing poetry with cryptic images the film transcends the limitations of cinematic language.

The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film festival.

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