From the mind of writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul comes the contemplative Thai drama Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a considered, at times surreal, film about a dying man recalling his past.
In my eyes, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the very definition of “contemplative cinema”. Some would call the genre “slow cinema”, but I find this a misleading name, since it suggests that being contemplative entails slow pacing. That of course, is not always the case, and Uncle Boonmee sets out to prove it. The film captures the final days of Boonmee’s life, a man suffering from kidney failure, but the opening scene suggests a far more mystical tone than one would expect from such a premise. We are greeted with nothing but an ox roaming through the woods, haunted by an unidentifiable figure with glowing red eyes. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul refuses to offer even a hint at what any of this means, which is typical of contemplative cinema.
What results is a work that has polarized critics. Some hail it as a contemporary masterpiece and the deserving winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or, while others condemn it for being a boring and pretentious stylistic practice. Personally, I stand in between these opposing stances. There were times when the film riveted me with its oddly relatable mysteries, yet there were times when I was unfortunately compelled to sleep. That does not mean that the film lacks substance. In fact, I would argue the opposite is true. My largest criticism towards this otherwise astounding exploration of time and existence, is that it occasionally gets too wrapped up in maintaining its distinct style. The film then becomes less an example of “contemplative cinema”, and more a justification for adopting its other name “slow cinema”.
I must clarify that I do not think slow pacing is equivalent to poor pacing; there are numerous scenes in Uncle Boonmee that I love and could easily be classified as slow. The cave scene would be a fine example (don’t worry, this review is spoiler-free). Unhurried cinematography lets the cave gradually consume the audience until we are unified with nature, just us Boonmee is unified with the realms of life and death, becoming an entity that appears to be alive and dead concurrently. It is only slow pacing that can imitate such tranquility of nature and provide the necessary time to immerse into the film’s questions.
Through careful contemplation, we start to grab ahold of the themes of reincarnation, man vs nature, the cyclical state of existence and so on. Our inability to pinpoint the exact theme makes the film all the more endearing. The slower the film, the more time we spend digging, and the more we realize such existential conundrums have no single answer. They might not even have an answer. What’s important is that slowness sparks wonderment and reflection on our part, causing us to ponder these universal questions, thus highlighting Weerasethakul’s capability to make contemplation an appealing component of the film.
On the flipside, contemplation sometimes verges into strenuous viewing. The final scene (again, this will remain spoiler-free) epitomizes such a phenomenon. It does not take long for the audience to be aware of the scene’s manipulation of time, but what starts off as an interesting concept soon becomes alienating, as the camera stares excessively at characters whose actions only divert attention. The essence of the scene, in my view, lies in the characters’ simultaneous presence across different timelines, not in their specific actions in each narrative. Their actions are still necessary since they propel the plot, but the thematic focus is not there. For a film so thematically driven, it seems out of place to lay so much emphasis on moments that stand on the periphery of the film’s philosophical core.
Of course, I don’t claim to understand the film completely. As I explained earlier, to do so would undermine the complexities inherent to the story. Perhaps I am oblivious to Weerasethakul’s intentions in the final scene, which explains why I feel certain scenes are slow simply for the sake of being so. But then again, I am oblivious to what Weerasethakul thinks throughout most, if not all, of the film. The urge for a quickened pace however, does not arise continuously, since the thought-provoking mysteries are what breathe life into the film. It is only when these mysteries are combined with tedious pacing that the film becomes inaccessible. During these moments, I fear that Weerasethakul has dived so deep into his own world that he forgets the audience needs some help getting there.
I am not here to demand answers. In fact, I’m delighted that we do not get them. What I worry about is that the questions the film asks are obscured by the audience’s sheer effort to pay attention, to the point where they lack interest in deciphering the message. Scenes become no more than a wonderfully constructed frame, its meaning sadly bounded within the director’s own mind. I will not deny that Weerasethakul is a profound thinker and a meticulous craftsman. Each shot, regardless of the quality of the content, can be appreciated for its aesthetics alone. Yet the best parts of Uncle Boonmee are the ones that mystify without losing the audience. After all, what good is such filmmaking expertise if the audience fails to be intrigued?
Written by Ron Ma
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
Released: 2010 / Genre: Drama
Country: Thailand / IMDB
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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is available on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK.