Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

(Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands, 2010)


Apichatpong Weerasethakul made an extraordinary career breakthough at the Cannes Film Festival of 2010, winning the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He was not quite 40 years old. Yet his movie carried so much weight beyond its fragile, trembling self: not only did it represent the victory, at last, of a certain, supposedly difficult type of cinema on the world stage; it was also seen as the culmination of an already full and amazing career in film, video and art.


Uncle Boonmee has the power to charm even those who are resistant to its mysteries: the animal-men with bright red eyes; an energetically horny fish who penetrates a woman; the plot that goes off on long, unannounced detours; a section narrated entirely in still photos; and the floating ambiguity concerning exactly which people and things relate to those past lives of the title character.


In truth, we must learn to simply groove along with the flow of Apichatpong’s style of cinema. It is an indiscernible, florid hybrid of Eastern and Western, ancient and modern influences. There is no single character on-screen who can serve as our infallible guide to this world of sounds and visions; we must get lost in it, as a sensual, cultural, intellectual adventure.


Apichatpong is the most distinctive pantheist of contemporary cinema. Life is not only a gift in his work, but also something holy, trembling with intimations of the divine – a reflection, in part, of the director’s deeply held Buddhism. The spirits of the deceased are everywhere in his films, inflecting and influencing the course of earthly events. And those earthly events themselves tend to follow a magic logic: stories break off, repeat, start over, loop around, forming a striking pattern.


It is not so much the fictional characters – as touching as they are, and as real as Apichatpong renders their concrete presence in his use of non-professional performers – that determines this pattern of life and history. Rather, it is nature, always beaming, breathing and pulsating at the heart of his oeuvre, that takes on this overarching, driving role.


Yet nature, simultaneously, is never divorced from architecture, machinery, culture and ideas. Ultimately, it is the invention of cinema itself – the fusion of technological tools with plain reality and staged fantasy alike – that signals the birth of a New World for Apichatpong. And I cannot imagine a more gracious and playful host presiding over our entrée into this world.


MORE Weerasethakul: Syndromes and a Century

© Adrian Martin July 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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