Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing, NR)

His films find new and interesting things to say about the experience of being alive—and new and interesting things to do with cinema as an art form along the way.



I’ve gotten to where I use the films of Thailand’s Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul as a litmus test for how intelligent and open to new experiences filmgoers are. His films are unlike any other, and a lot of people have trouble getting into them. For the purposes of this review, we’ll call this type of person “stupid.”

While there are no films like the ones Weerasethakul is currently making, he has enough distinguishing characteristics as a writer/director that all of his work feels cut from the same cloth. He’s really into gorgeous landscapes shot in the woods of rural Thailand, he likes playing around with the concept of spirits and ghosts (in a most beautiful way, though; nothing like you could ever hope to see come out of Hollywood), he doesn’t care much for your typical three-act story structure, and he seems to be heavily influenced by experimental films. Which is to say, his movies might not make linear sense as you’re accustomed to most films doing, but they do make sense in their own way. They find new and interesting things to say about the experience of being alive—and new and interesting things to do with cinema as an art form along the way.

Of his five or so films to date, Uncle Boonmee is arguably his most accessible. It’s probably no coincidence that it is also the film that’s been met with the most international praise. It famously won the Palme d’Or (the highest honor) at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and has been playing the festival circuit heavily ever since, including two screenings in last year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. I’m happy that it’s coming back to town on the big screen, if only for a few more screenings, because this is the way that it really needs to be seen. The immersion of the cinema experience is vital here, as is the quality of the film stock and projection, to at least fully appreciate the richness of the Thai jungle and all of its creatures.

If you insist on me trying to describe the non-linear plot in a linear way, Uncle Boonmee is primarily about the titular character who is suffering from kidney failure and spends his final days with his family in a home in very rural northern Thailand. (I’ve been told that the dialect of Thai they speak in this film is very uncommon, so even if you speak Thai maybe don’t expect to be able to understand the dialogue.) As he sits at the dinner table or lies in his bed he is visited by some unexpected guests, all of whom tell interesting stories. It is their stories rather than Uncle Boonmee’s own that take up the bulk of the film’s running time.

More than anything, Weerasethakul’s work simply feels more vital to the worldwide film community than that of pretty much any other director at their prime today. I said in my 2010 top ten list that my bets were on this film to be my favorite film of 2011, despite the fact that I saw it for the first time last year (a technicality—Strand Releasing didn’t give it an official U.S. release until 2011); that bet is still on. | Pete Timmermann 

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 PM April 15-17. For more information, visit webster.edu/filmseries. Also, check out the cool theatrical one-sheet for the film designed by renowned graphic novelist Chris Ware or buy some of Weerasethakul’s back catalogue on DVD over at strandreleasing.com.


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