This year’s winner of the coveted Palme d’Or Prize, the magical-realist Thai oddity Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), was one of the most unforeseen, yet unanimously welcomed Cannes Film Festival award winners of all time. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s magnum opus has perhaps been best summarised, by US magazine Variety, as “apparitions, out-of-body experiences, (and) sex with a catfish”.
As the months have passed, much of the critical hype surrounding the film has slowly dissipated. However, Uncle Boonmee’s high billing at this year’s 54th BFI London Film Festival, in coordination with the BFI’s very own Sight and Sound magazine, seems to suggest that Weerasethakul’s oddity may well have the necessary depth and longevity to outlive its “Palme d’Or winner” tag.
Conceived as the final chapter in Weerasethakul’s multi-platform art series ‘Primitive‘, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives follows the tale of our titular protagonist (Thanapat Saisaymar), a dying farm owner living in the rural Isan region of Northeast Thailand.
Shortly after the arrival of his sister and nephew – presumably to say their last goodbyes – Boonmee is joined for dinner by two ghostly visitors, namely the spirit of his deceased wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and the initially unnerving figure of his lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), having returned from the forest in which he disappeared as a half-human, half-monkey spirit. What follows is a carefully constructed, gentle tapestry of existentialist philosophy, religious pondering and human/animal symbiosis (both metaphorical and, as Variety have already touched upon, literal).
Throughout the piece, Weerasethakul excels at weaving together philosophical thoughts and concerns regarding man’s intrinsic relationship with the natural world, with the subtle exploration of a number of past and present socio-political issues that still effect Thailand and its diverse populace. Boonmee himself admits to being a former soldier of the imperialist Thai Army, and it is even implied at several points that he may have been directly involved in the violent 1965 witch-hunts of Communist sympathisers within the Isan region.
Death is undoubtedly the most prominent theme throughout. It is explicitly apparent in Boonmee’s own unavoidable march towards his “next life”, the reappearance of his own ‘beloved dead’, and allusions are also made in the extinction of some of Thailand’s oldest and most ancient traditions in the face of the country’s ongoing modernisation.
The film itself – modestly shot on the endangered format that is 35mm, whilst also utilising a number of age-old, near-anachronistic SFX techniques in order to bring to life the spiritual world – seems somewhat out of place alongside some of the high profile, digital exponents likely to claim much of the adulation at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Fortunately, Weerasethakul’s intelligently-placed injections of humour – ranging from dead-pan comic moments to the outright farcical – prove the perfect foil to some of his the film’s more melancholic scenes, successfully lifting Uncle Boonmee (both the work as a whole, and its mortal protagonist) from the realms of despair and anguish towards hope and rebirth.
Whilst murmurs of dissent regarding Uncle Boonmee’s status as a bona fide Palme d’Or winner continue to rumble on within certain circles, Weerasethakul’s sensual meditation on human mortality is never any less than completely deserving of its status as one of the London Film Festival’s most unique, original and, at points, truly extraordinary selections.