Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The blogosphere has been alive over the past month or so with raves for this film, directed by acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme D'or.  Unfortunately, I can't join in the praise.  Frankly, I didn't get it, and I'm not sure what I'm missing.  I readily admit my judgment is not the "correct" or best one to follow here, so all I can offer is a subjective account of what I liked about the film and what I didn't.  

I came to Uncle Boonmee with a lot of excitement and expectation.  I had been hearing about it since its premiere at Cannes a year before, and the reaction had been universally positive.  Every critic around assured me it was a masterpiece for the ages, one of the few high points of a weak festival, a feast for the mind and the senses.  One critic even suggested that when Uncle Boonmee won the Golden Palm, "What happened in 2010 was what would have happened in 1960 had L'avventura won over La dolce vita. The myth that cinema has been in a state of steady regression is crushed once and for all."  (Incidentally, I also hated L'avventura, but for completely different reasons.  There the characters were so completely empty they drove me to rage and despair, and by the time the film was over I wanted to punch something.  That was not the case here.)  I understood that the film would be slow, filled with long, lingering shots of trees, grass, and jungle, and a calm, gentle attitude toward plot and character.  I knew it might be a challenge to get through and that it wasn't the sort of thing that would play to a multiplex, and these expectations were certainly correct.  Where my expectations were off was an overconfidence in my own ability to get through the film and an overestimation of the level of masterpiece I would be watching. 

I have watched a fair amount of slow, airy, and/or spiritual cinema over the past year, including but not limited to films by Terrence Malick, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkovsky.  I think that I was expecting something of a cross between Edward Yang's Yi Yi and Malick's The New World, both films I fell in love with on first viewing and regard as absolute masterpieces of the highest order.  What I got, though, was more mystifying than either of these films, and left me feeling frustrated and irritable rather than awestruck or even mildly confused.  Many other films, like some of Bresson's, have left me with mixed and uncertain feelings, which eventually coalesce into admiration, when I have applied thought and time to what I've seen.  With Uncle Boonmee, though, I've just grown to dislike the film the more I've thought about it, and I'm not sure why that is.

I saw the film in the newly restored IU Cinema, a beautiful theater with comfortable seats, frequented by art-appreciative crowds.  I went with my father, who is not a connoisseur of such films, but took a fancy to see this one with me.  Our seats were comfortable, the atmosphere pleasant, the audience quiet, and I settled in ready to immerse  myself in the film.  I found the opening scene remarkably beautiful--the water buffalo pulling at its rope while incense smoke rises from the grass.  It reminded me of the horse that rolls over near the beginning of Andrei Rublev, though I'm not sure why; it had something of the same transfixing, symbolic beauty.  At the same time, I was very conscious of what I was watching and thinking--I did not find myself given over to beauty and transcendence as I did with The New World.  I hoped that I would feel this way eventually, but it turned out that this was the closest to the feeling I would come.

The next scene showed Jen and Tong riding in a car, and it lasted a long time.  I was conscious of this length but not overly bothered by it, because I had expected things like this.  Nevertheless, it established the pattern:  Individual shots and scenes throughout the film would take my breath away with their mundane-yet-otherworldly beauty, but these would be followed by long scenes that left me cold.  There's nothing exactly wrong with these scenes that I know of, they just seemed to lack signifcance to me and I found myself waiting patiently for them to end so more interesting things could come along.  I suppose this sounds like I just got bored with the movie because it was slow, but it wasn't really that.  I was engaged by certain scenes more than others, but for the first two-thirds of the movie I was still fascinated, if rather mystified.  Other scenes which struck me with their beauty were the ghostly dinner scene, the shots where Jen walks through the orchard, and the journey to the cave.  One shot I particularly admired was just an "empty" shot looking out at a hammock on the porch, the vast jungle trees swaying with the breeze in the background.  That scene did seem to me to achieve a certain beauty and peace.

Unfortunately, I found the meandering narrative further broken up by what appeared to be scenes from Boonmee's past lives, though the is only a guess as they were left completely unexplained.  The main scene is the already-infamous catfish scene, which involves a princess apparently receiving oral sex from a large talking catfish in a lagoon.  I have no idea what this scene means, or how it connects to the rest of the movie.  It seems to be a fragment of a fairy tale, but why it is here is so vague that I'm not sure there's even an answer.  Certainly I haven't found any reviewer who's actually tried to answer it.  The scene is partially redeemed, though, by its final shot:  The camera dives beneath the waves to see a torrent of bubbles, kicked up by the thrashing princess and the nearby waterfall.  The bubbles fly everywhere in an incredibly beautiful abstract composition.  This is probably the only shot in the film I thought ended too soon. 

It is the last twenty minutes, though, that really threw me for a loop.  Boonmee and company travel to a cave in the jungle, and then inside it, past crystals that look like stars, to a vast cavern where Boonmee is to die.  It is a mesmerizing sequence that is beautifully done and immediately suggests comparison to Plato's Cave, and the discovery of meaning.  But here, instead of finally giving answers or more boldly engaging with the questions tangentially raised so far, the film spins off into a still-photo montage of kids with guns and a guy in a monkey suit.  What does this have to do with anything?  What does it mean?  I had no idea then and I have no idea now, despite reading a dozen different reviews of the film by intelligent, appreciative critics.  They offered a few possible explanations--another past life, a future life, another story of monkey-ghosts, a reference to one of Apichatpong's other video projects.  Most said it was a political comment on that region of modern Thailand, but what sort of comment and to what end no one bothers to explain, if they even know.  Whatever its meaning, from this point onward I found myself completely divorced from the events and characters of the film, alienated instead of involved, with no idea what to feel or think about the events onscreen.

After Boonmee's death, the others go back to the city.  They hold a funeral with a huge, garish, tower of electric lights and plastic to commemorate him (the contrast with the naturalism of the jungle is obvious here, at least).  Then they go sit in a hotel, watch TV, and sort letters.  Tong takes a long, real-time shower.  Then he and Jen get up and leave other versions of themselves still sitting, go to a karaoke bar, and a pop song plays over the credits.  What does all this mean?  I don't know, and frankly, at this point, I don't care.  I expended quite a lot of energy trying to figure it out, reading other reviews, thinking, and discussing it with my dad, and I'm no closer to finding an answer than when I started.  I left the theater feeling confused and uncertain, and now I've come the point of irritation and exasperation.  That may seem petty, but it's how I feel.  If the last act of the film has any meaning--and I think it does, Apichatpong is nothing if not a serious filmmaker trying to make major statements--then it is known only to him and a chosen few.  It is closed to me, and there's nothing I can do but throw up my hands and give up.

I understand that plenty of others disagree with me and found the film truly powerful and brilliant.  I am not by any means saying my opinion is correct on this one.  I went in with high hopes and wanted to like it.  And I did like certain scenes and shots quite a bit.  It is clearly a significant aesthetic achievement, but I'll be doggoned if I know what it means.  Even the themes that seem clearer to me seem rather underdeveloped.  Hardly and reference is made to past lives, and having three sentences about Communism is apparently considered a powerful political statement.  Clearly the fear of death and the effort to die peacefully and well is at the forefront of the film's mind, and that, at least, seems well-served and successful.  Everything else is so oblique, vague, and mystifying that it doesn't really make any impression on me at all.  I find that discouraging.  You may have noticed my reference to other cinematic masterpieces in this post, pretty clearly an attempt to bolster my own cinephilic credentials for a negative review.  Hopefully I wasn't too whiney about it.  I will reserve judgment on Apichatpong's works as a whole until I have seen more.  I especially wish to see Syndromes and a Century; if and when I do I will offer my updated opinion.

If you want reviews of Uncle Boonmee that are actually appreciative of the film and try to explain it more thoroughly, I recommend going here, here, here, here, or here.

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