Thailand / UK / France / Germany / Spain / The Netherlands / USA 2010.
In colour, standard widescreen, with English subtitles. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Leeds International Film Festival screened the winner of the Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in the capacious Town Hall auditorium. The large screen gave proper scope to this visually stunning film and it offered a good reproduction of the film’s imaginative soundtrack. The slight drawback was that the film was screened in the afternoon. I discovered that there some daylight seeps in through the upper windows and this, together with slight shadows, can fall onto the screen. Most films you would not notice. But Uncle Boonmee, in the scenes set in the jungle, has the lowest illumination I have seen in contemporary cinema. It is only matched by equivalent scenes in the same director’s earlier Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004). The other feature by this filmmaker that I have seen is Syndromes and a Century (Sang sattawat).
All three films have elliptical narratives and are full of ambiguities. Uncle Boonmee does seem straightforward compared with the earlier works, but that is a relative quality. In an interview in The Guardian (with Steve Rose, 12 November 2010) Joe [as he prefers to be known] commented: “Sometimes you don’t need to understand everything to appreciate a certain beauty.” And on the film, “It talks about death and at the same time life and dreams, and also the memory of how I grew up with this landscape.” The film’s setting is Northeast Thailand, near to the director’s family village.
The part of the film that resembles a plot is simple to describe. Tong, a young man, together with an older woman, Jen, visits Uncle Boonmee, a farmer. Boonmee is ill from a kidney infection which requires his Laotian servant, Jaai, to drain it every day. In the course of an evening meal the spirits of Boonmee’s dead wife and son joins the trio. The son, Boonsong, recounts mysterious events in the forest. These include relations with animals and re-incarnation in animal form. Later Boonmee and his visitors explore a nearby cave where he recounts a strange dream. The film ends as Tong and Jen attend Boonmee’s funeral.
The film seems most interested in the world of spirits and dreams. And the boundary between what we call the real world and that of the imagination seems extremely fluid. The film delves into memories and old stories and represents a traditional culture that may be disappearing, but which still seems potent. There is clearly a Buddhist element, but the film seemed to me spiritual in the sense of unseen worlds rather than that of formal religions. Apparently the director was partly stimulated by a story of an old man who recounted his previous lives as other people and as animals, [A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives by Phra Sripariyattiweti]. Memory is central to the film, but not in a manner that western audiences are used to.
The worlds thus created are presented in lustrous visuals and sound. The film possesses some of the darkest frames seen on a screen, with only a shadow or an outline visible. It also captures a range of natural settings in varied hues and colours. The accompanying sound track is a mixture of sounds, voices, music, and added noise. It creates as much beauty and ambiguity as the visuals. Weerasethakul often uses distinctive techniques. The dream sequence is composed of stills rather than using photographic effect. At the end of the film a superimposition presents the audience with three characters and their possible clones?
Much of the effect of the film must be down to the talented production crew working on the film. The three films that I have seen all had the same Editor and Production Designer, Lee Chatametikool and Akelarat Homlaor: and the cinematography is by Sayombhu Mulkdeeprom, who filmed Syndromes and a Century. If Weerasethakul has a flair for combining striking settings, images and sounds: then he is extremely well served by the craft people who work on the films.
The film does not seem to be merely about nostalgia. There are contemporary references to the problems of today’s Thailand. The character of Jaai raises the issues of prejudice against immigrants. Boonmee relates his illness to the suppression of a communist insurgency in past years. And at the end Tong and Jen watch a television in a hotel room, and it appears to show troops and protesters in the Thai streets. Such references are, however, as ambiguous as the spirits in the film. When I viewed the credits I found a reference to a film extract but not to any television news. And the final sequence of the film left me puzzled. Tong, who is revealed as a Buddhist monk, changes into lay clothes. Also in the room are Jen and a young woman. A superimposition leaves the trio watching television whilst at the same time Tong and Jen descends to eat a meal in the restaurant. As they sit together they are listening to a loud and [I thought] brassy popular song. After the slow quietness of much of the earlier film this felt like a major disruption. But I was not sure what was meant by this disruption? It occurs to me that it may not be a disruption: the scene could present the ease with which these characters move between the ‘traditional world’ and the ‘modern’ world.
Uncle Boonmee will shortly get a limited release in the UK. If you have seen Weerasethakul’s earlier films you will probably want to see this. I found it an absorbing and at times exhilarating experience. Not everyone will enjoy the ambiguity and elusiveness: [two of the audience gave up about halfway through in Leeds]. But I think most of the viewers in the Town Hall were impressed. It has a 12A certificate and whilst not explicit, the tales recount adult material.
Apart from a number of WebPages there is a review and an extended article on the director and the film in Sight & Sound December 2010.
You may be interested in this video recording of Apichatpong Weerasethakul discussing the film at the 2010 London Film Festival (full diclosure: that’s me hogging the first few minutes): In the Hands of Fate: Existentialism in Film
Good review Keith. I think you have covered the most interesting aspects of the film.
Re the relationship between Song and Jen, this seems to hinge on the Asian convention of calling all older women ‘Auntie’. Tong could be Jen’s son, nephew or simply a young man she knows. At the end of the film, the young woman seems to be his sister – or cousin?
My main enjoyment in the film was the sense of place coming through the landscape – and especially the soundscape. I didn’t have such a negative reaction to the final song or the karaoke bar – but I wish there had been subtitles for the song.
This is a film to watch again, but I’d like to watch his other films first – and other Thai films too.
Re your comment on Tsai Ming-Kiang’s claim to be the only Asian director making ‘personal films, Apichatpong is certainly another.