Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

“Open to interpretention” is, and should be, the death knell of an independent film. Impenetrable movies pertaining to explain the dreaded human condition made specifically for broadsheet critics and men with cravats and an over inflated opinion of Peter Greenaway. However, as mainstream cinema cruises, flirts and outright fucks with pornographic notions (brief exposition followed by long, long scenes of action, sex, explosions, car chases, breasts, origin stories, Michael Bay movies) so the air on the other side of the meadow (ditch) seems so much fresher and different. Thank god then that people are still making films that demand an input from the audience, an active participation in the viewing, a grip on the thoughts after the curtain has fallen and yes, films that are “open to interpretation”.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives scooped the Palme D’Or at the 2008 Cannes festival (from a Tarantino headed jury no less) and it’s easy to see why. Oblique enough to appear highbrow and yet filled with a warmth and joy that floods the heart with an unsuspecting happiness, surprisingly cinematically knowing and packed with moments that inspire laughter and a change of perspective, Boonmee is clever enough to appeal to everyone.

Set out in the northern forests of Thailand on the border with Laos, Uncle Boonmee owns a fruit farm, dying of kidney failure his sister in law and farm hands nurse him as best they can. During one evening meal Boonmee is visited by the ghost of his deceased wife and his son, who vanished twenty years ago and is no longer human. They share tales of the afterlife and comfort Boonmee in his last days. Boonmee then experiences visions before his death. Boonmee is anything but conventional.

Segmented and shot in several distinct styles, Boonmee sometimes feels like an homage to British period dramas, sometimes like a fast and loose sixties French piece and quite often like nothing else on film. The irreverence on display is particularly admirable. Sex with a catfish, a prodigal monkey child and an undressing monk are all ideas that could easily have been discarded at the drawing board stage, mking the film a more serious meditation on dying. Left in, however, they accentuate the insanity of coping with a terminal illness and make the film braver and stronger (not to mention unique) in the long run. A real sense of the freedom of creativity is on display, shooting from one idea to the next, from one technique to another and from one mood to a totally contrasting one in a heartbeat or less.

This is a film that draws you in with the method of not revealing too much too soon (or indeed ever). It’s elegantly paced, realistically acted and edited with a langour that few other works could get away with. Whilst frequently funny the central theme of death keeps it anchored and allows the moments of absurdity to sit delicately and comfortably amongst the pathos. The film’s belief that death is very much not the end allows the warmth to continue well past the final reel.


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