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Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Japan title: Boonmee Ojisan no Mori)'

Award-winning Thai curio ponders the final curtain

You have to be in a certain frame of mind to appreciate "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," (released in Japan as "Boonmee Ojisan no Mori"). The kind of frame that comes at a point in life when you're ready to discard material wealth and social position, to rid yourself of stressful relationships and de-clutter your closets — in short, when you find yourself reading blogs about zen and minimalism and longing to get away to some exotic, Buddhism-tinged location. If you're the type who enjoys clubbing at night and coffee bistros the rest of the time, then it's probably the best thing for everyone concerned — you, me and Uncle Boonmee — to stop reading this and go out for a mocha latte. Go ahead, we don't mind.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Japan title: Boonmee Ojisan no Mori) Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
He sees dead people too: As he prepares for death, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, right) is visited by ghosts from his past. © A KICK THE MACHINE FILMS

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Thai (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens March 5, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"Uncle Boonmee . . . " is writtendirected by Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and is fiercely atypical of that country's movie scene (as it is represented on the international festival circuit). In Southeast Asia, Weerasethakul is synonymous with respected, rebellious art-house theater (several of his films have been banned in Thailand on religious grounds). But his winning the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival came out of left field — and pushed Thai indie films to the forefront of European media attention (albeit temporarily).

Such things seem to happen at Cannes — and, in fact, "Uncle Boonmee . . . " recalls "Moe no Suzaku" by Japan's indie auteur Naomi Kawase (1997). That picture also came out of nowhere, won the Camera d'Or and alerted the world to a particular poetic view on life, decay and death.

Still, "Uncle Boonmee . . . " — though seemingly of the same species — is a totally different animal. To be in his company (and we're talking about a solid two hours here) can be intensely, tantrum-inducingly frustrating. And I know it's not just me and my antizen tendencies — in Cannes, critic reviews were split and splintered and a lot of people were seen exiting the screening room looking glum and bewildered.

Having said that, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is the kind of guy who grows on you. He's reticent and understated, soon to die from kidney failure, but preferring to live out his last days at home. The story charts the sensations and sensory experiences that assail Uncle Boonmee as he lies in the family bungalow, or gets up to have meals on a modest but lovely terrace.

His sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) comes to visit from the city and listens to him speak, quietly and with detachment, of how different scenes out of his past lives and incarnations are now visiting him, sometimes only in his retinas but more often in ways that his sister and his Laotian assistant (who helps Boonmee with his dialysis) can see. Neighbors also look in, and stay for tea or dinner. No one thinks the presence of these "ghosts" are strange or inconvenient — they're just accepted, even taken for granted.

In one wrenchingly emotional segment (perhaps the only one in the film), Boonmee's dead wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) comes over for a heart-to-heart chat. In another, his long-lost son, whom Boonmee hasn't seen since the boy's childhood, drops by. Boonmee senses, rather than knows, who these people are. His son, for example, inexplicably takes the form of a monkey with red eyes.

Since Cannes, Weerasethakul has told the press that it's OK not to understand the movie or to attempt to explain it logically, but "best to leave this as a jumble." By saying so, Weerasethakul is duplicating the sentiments expressed (as opposed to explained) in "Uncle Boonmee . . . " — the director is paying tribute to a way of life fast becoming obsolete in Thailand. Even as the film quietly celebrated the old ways of life fraught with spirits of past and present, at the time of its release, demonstrators were taking to the streets of Bangkok to demand modernization. In a symbolic gesture, "Uncle Boonmee . . . " was shot on film — and the director believes that it is among the last batch of celluloid movies we'll ever see.

It takes a film like this to show us the infinite, gentle nuances of light and shadow that digital cinematography fashions with fierce and relentless accuracy. And it takes Uncle Boonmee to show what it's like to ponder, move and speak at a pace so slow as to redefine the term "excruciating."

If we were to come away with anything resembling comprehension, it is perhaps that, from Weerasethakul's perspective, tragedy is to be deprived not of coherent answers but of that magical space of time when there is nothing but gentle and persuasive questions.

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