Thursday, September 23, 2010

NYFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him "pleasure" a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary.  Merely a natural extension of the director's already mythmaking style of filmmaking.  When Von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out "chaos reigns" in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself.  In Uncle Boonmee,, I mean Joe (as he likes to be called) it seems like just a natural thing that happens all the time.  A talking catfish who goes down on a princess?  Sure, why the Hell not.

Seriously though, Uncle Boonmee is a revelatory piece of cinema - especially considering my sordid past with the films of Joe's strange little oeuvre (and I don't mean that as condescendingly as it may sound).  More oft than not I have had rather tepid reactions to the works of Weerasethakul.  Blissfully Yours and Mysterious Object at Noon were interesting experimentations but held no real lasting flavour.  Meanwhile Syndromes and a Century (first seen at this very festival four years back), though praised to the high heavens by just about every self-respecting critic out there, and though quite charming throughout, fell rather flat in this particular critic's esteem.  Only Tropical Malady (first seen at this very festival six years back) made a lasting impression on me (enough of one to make my top 10 that year).  That is, until now, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Fascinating from absolute beginning to absolute end, Uncle Boonmee is the Thai auteur's best film yet (as well as winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes!), with its weaving intricate tales of the strange and unusual within the mundane and ordinary (read: Apichatpong's unnatural natural filmmaking signature) and his ideas of duality and alternate existences.  Basically the story of the titular uncle who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm.  Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee's dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness.  Shortly after that Boonmee's long lost son returns, but in some sort of bigfootian non-human form.  In fact the first appearance of the ominous-seeming monkey ghosts (see picture below) was what sealed the proverbial deal for this critic.  
Meanwhile, after the aforementioned randy catfish, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul's storytelling.  A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong has managed to deepen my love for his work - something that probably should have been done a while ago (perhaps Syndromes and a Century deserves a much needed second look).  Stunningly photographed in such a way as to make the already unnatural naturalness of the film seem even more mystical (Joe, in the after film Q&A, spoke of his intent on an artificiality of scenery) Uncle Boonmee is what one would call haunting - if one wished to use such a cliche'd term as haunting.  But really, it is quite haunting.  Quite haunting indeed.  All that and a talking, seductive catfish.  Why the Hell not.

note: Strand Releasing has purchased US rights to the film and will eventually release it theatrically here in the states.  When that eventuality is, I cannot yet say, but I would guess at an early 2011 time table.  At such time I will post a full review of the film.

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