Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was this year’s surprise winner of the Palme d’Or, in a jury headed by Tim Burton, surprising because it was critically reviled and just not there to please the Cannes critics. Whether that’s a good or bad thing who knows. Apichatpong Weerasethakul directs this incredibly bizarre film originating from Thailand about the eponymous Uncle Boonmee who on his deathbed moves through different reincarnations to help his passage into death.
The film is almost a portmanteau collection of various different ‘lives’ of Uncle Boonmee but strangely connected by a sense of location and a twisted fantastical version of nature. Ranging from the return of his ghostly wife, his lost son emerging as a red eyed shadowy being and most oddly and perhaps most bizarrely: a princess getting very well acquainted with a catfish. As with most portmanteau type films it is a very mixed bag. Some moments are quite funny, mainly the orgasm inspiring catfish and other moments are nicely deadpan. The rest of it is a complete bore.
This is arthouse filmmaking with a capital A and even among an arthouse audience many will find it as slow and odd as I did. If your looking for a narrative you’re not welcome and if you’re looking to be captivated by developed characters then just don’t bother, it is a film to experience and feel. It engages the senses rather than rational thought.
The film establishes the tone very early on, we open on the shot of a buffalo moving through the Thai landscape for what must be the best part of ten minutes. It tests your patience that’s for sure. The idea supposedly being one of transcendence to bring you into the diegesis of the world being created by the director. It does become tiresome and while there are moments of startling beauty, they are few and far between and they unfortunately get lost among the languors where nothing happens.
When it won the Palme d’Or, so many critics questioned the choice, that Burton had to defend his decision after choosing it over the universally praised (and rightful winner) Another Year. He said that:
The world is more Hollywood-ised. This came from another perspective… something you don’t normally see.
Well yes, fair enough but whether or not that makes it deserving is another matter. It is certainly unique, but that comment is a bit rich considering his own Alice In Wonderland was released under the huge Hollywood corporate Disney, forced into a 3D conversion which was ultimately done for more commercial reasons so they could make more money. His reasoning doesn’t justify why this is the BEST among the lot, but because it is an opposite to the system.
Awards are always going to be political and that is certainly true with the Oscars, but at the Cannes Film Festival surely you choose the winner based on the quality. I’m still unsure what went through the jury’s collective head when this was chosen as the ‘film of the festival’. Uncle Boonmee is undeniably something that would appeal to Burton’s taste, its a weird, fantastical film that has some place between the real world and the magical. But the film lacks something that all the great Burton films have: which is something an audience can invest in.
It will surely divide audiences, some will be enraptured by the power of Weerasethakul’s startling imagery and others, like myself, will find themselves with heavy eyelids. You will take from it what you bring to it, and it is a film you react to on a personal level. Each viewer will form a different interpretation. I saw this nearly two weeks ago and I can only now, after a period of thinking about it, begin to put down how the film effected me. I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon but this too strange and too dull to find any audience.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is boring and completely fails to engage on any level. Simply put, it's much too strange for its own good.