Friday, 19 November 2010

LFF #6: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has already recieved some coverage on the blog. It was my second favorite film of the festival after Lucy Walker's Waste Land (2010) and it hits select (arthouse) cinemas in the UK today.

The controversial winner of the Palme D'or at this years Cannes Film Festival, Uncle Boonmee is now within a fair shout of a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod. It probably won't win - Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010) is much more 'worthy' - but the nomination would definitely provide a bigger platform for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to play on. Not that he needs it of course. His films may be small in budget but they are huge in scope. Along the lines of Tropical Malady (2004) this finds him in the realm of the jungle dealing with spirits, life and death - with a good deal of the action taking place in shadow. Of course that film was a tender drawing of gay romance, whereas Uncle Boonmee, from portentous title to existential denouement, is about reincarnation and the worlds of and between life and death. What's remarkable about Uncle Boonmee (and this is true of all of Weerasethakul's oeuvre) is how unique it is. The press notes proclaimed that there are things in this film you've never seen before - universes to be explored. Truly this is a totally unique and captivating experience that will likely stay with you forever. And depending on your tolerance for snail paced painterly pondering, that will be a good or bad thing.

Cannes is famous for making unpredictable, left-wing decisions when it comes to awarding the Palme D'or and Uncle Boonmee recieved some scathingly negative and reactionary complaints at the time. French critics were less than kind to the film, proclaiming it hopelessly boring and a failed experiment. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw has rightly given the film 5 stars, calling it "mysterious, dreamlike, gentle, quiet, magical". In many ways, that's as accurate a summary as you're going to get because the content of Uncle Boonmee can't really be described in words. I gave it a bash in my brief write-up two months ago, when I said that the film contains "questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic. It's a deeply spiritual film; an existential film that explores the literal and metaphorical boundaries between the worlds of life and death". I stand by these statements and also by the fact that the catfish scene, the source of some amusement for the films detractors, has an almost religious, hypnotic quality. It's certainly the bravest move I've seen in a film for years, perhaps only equalled by a scene in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999) where the entire cast begin to sing along to Aimee Mann's 'Wise Up'. And that's my favorite film of all time.

If you can find a cinema that's playing Uncle Boonmee you should take the time to watch it. It's frustrating, confusing and breaks most filmmaking rules, but that's exactly what makes it so captivating. It consists of long static shots and ambient natural sound, yet retains a quality that is epic and distinctly cinematic. A shot of the sun going down over a dense, mystical forrest inhabited by spirits is beautifully evocative. The red penetrative eyes of a monkey spirit and the emerging ghost of Boonmee's dead wife are quietly haunting. The ending will leave you with more questions than answers but as the perky pop music begins to play over the most conventionally shot and lit scene of the film, which could be existing anywhere, you'll be glad you came. To end I'll quote another 5 star review, from The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu... "It's barely a film; more a floating world". Uncle Boonmee certainly exists in a place that most other filmmakers dare not touch - a place of furious intelligence, exasperating ambiguity, dazzling imagination, artistic ambition and quietly affecting honesty. That a film like this should even exist in the 21st century is a miracle - so lets savor it. It's a bewildering, life-affirming experience and you're either going to love or loathe it. But that's what cinema is all about. Right?

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