I had heard buckets about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives before it finally came to my part of town. Moving, ethereal, confusing, more art than film… I couldn’t miss it. Indeed, the film was all of those things.
French poster used because American promotional materials were, IMO, atrocious. Edit: Don’t hate me! My local theatre didn’t have the Chris Ware poster, but yes, that one is not at at all atrocious.
The film begins with a prolonged, and very dark*, sequence involving a water buffalo. Boonmee is dying, and he begins seeing his former lives. Is the water buffalo one of Boonmee’s past lives? What does it mean for his current life, if so?
The latter is the question that most interested me during and after watching this film. The movie is rife with what seem to be either flashbacks (to prior lives?) or dream sequences. Or perhaps, these vignettes are merely side stories attached to the main narrative for perspective or distraction. Just as we are wondering what impact Boonmee’s past lives have on his current, we must also wonder what impact these bits of dream have on the main narrative.
The mystical nature of the quasi-dream world leaks into the real world, as Boonmee’s wife’s ghost appears at the dining table. Their son also appears, having transformed himself into a “monkey demon.” The reaction at the dining table is probably the only laugh-out-loud scene in the movie, so it is a pity that almost every review spoils the admittedly funny line.
I spent at least a third of the movie with my mouth gaping in surprise.
The monkey demons-when not in focus-are odd, frightening creatures. The infamous carp scene comes with a shock of realization for the audience. (And does she get it, eternal youth and beauty? Or did she just end up having sex with a fish for nothing? How does that work, biologically anyway? What happened with Leda and the Swan?)
Perhaps the most unexpected outcome is Boonmee’s death. He is a sick man throughout the film, and his wife’s ghost says repeatedly that she is here to help and bring him home. His death is not surprising. What is surprising is the film continuing past his death as if the titular Boonmee was only a side character in his own movie. Perhaps a rumination on each of our lives– We believe the Film revolves around us and the audience leaves after our exit stage left. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?
Yes, Uncle Boonmee is very much an arthouse film. But, like, good art, the movie provokes thought. It doesn’t so much ask questions as it pushes the audience to ask of their own volition. So much film is one-way communication. The lights dim, and we shut off our brains, content to soak in the media given us. This film does almost the opposite.
*I know this because three people came in late and stood in the aisles, unable to see seats in the darkness. It’s called Wait in the Back Until Lights Up, people.