Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Guess who's coming to dinner
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
The Setup: 
Slow film about a dying man and his family, including visits from spirits

It's another one of those nights where there's nothing we feel like seeing so--why not go see the Thai film that was the surprise winner at Cannes last year? Okay. Better than Hall Pass. Plus, I had seen the trailer for it earlier this week when I slept through The Diary of a Country Priest, and it looked to have some pretty intriguing imagery.

We open with a quotation I didn't get exactly but it's something about drifting through "past lives as animal and other figures rise up before me." Then a water buffalo breaks its rope and wanders into the forest. A humanoid ape-like figure with glowing red eyes watches it. Then the man we'll soon recognize as the Uncle Boomlee of the title comes in and leads the animal out. That was ten minutes, right there.

Then Boomlee and his sister-in-law Jen sit around discussing Boomlee's nurse, who is Lao and an immigrant worker. The whole movie is made up largely of people laying around having very leisurely, very quiet discussions. Boomlee had some kind of operation and needs a nurse to come by and hydrate his kidney, all accomplished by a tube leading into his abdomen. Later, at dinner, a woman fades in to join them at the dinner table. It is the spirit of Boonmee's dead wife, and the sister of Jen. Then they hear someone lurking outside, and invite him in. It's one of those red-eyed ape figures. He comes in and sits down--he looks like a sad Chewbacca--and this is Boonmee's son, who ran away into the forest one day and vanished. Everyone speaks in hushed tones but is welcoming and accepting of the spirits in their midst, and life seems calm and without a great deal of strife or yearning after things one doesn't have.

It continues, but it's important that you understand that this movie has NO plot. It's halfway through and all people have done is sit around and have leisurely conversations. There's a sudden fable in which a lonely princess meets a horny catfish, but it winds up and the princess never appears again. There is an event toward the end, and it can be somewhat moving if you've been paying attention, but the energy of the movie never rises for a second, it just continues at a glacial pace from beginning to end, with no conflict, no raising of voices.

At a certain point one of the spirits says that ghosts don't get attached to places, they're attached to people. So the movie would seem to be about Boomlee at the end of his life, becoming meditative, at which point spirits and figures from the past start intermingling with the living, and figures of fantasy [the princess] become real, and its much about meditation and connection and suchlike. And if you're paying attention and get get into its languid rhythm and just go with what you see, it can be fairly moving. I suspect it could be quite, quite moving to some people. I myself found it somewhat moving, but at the same time the whole idea of what the movie was doing was a little too much on the surface, and that pulled me a bit out of getting genuinely involved. My friend did not ever get that involved, and as a result came out feeling like the movie was a lot of claptrap. But it's like any work of art: the more you let yourself get involved with it, the more you're likely to see in it. And like any work of art, the things you see in it may or may not actually be THERE.

I would love for there to be an alternate reality in which this film did NOT win at Cannes, and we could see what kind of reviews it would get then. Because I suspect its surprise win is behind a lot of the positive notices its getting, and if it hadn't won [i.e. if there hadn't been this big respected group that told critics THIS IS GOOD] I think the reviews we'd be seeing would be far less enthusiastic. Don't get me wrong, it's a nicely done, quiet, meditative movie about human connection. But what you get out of it will depend largely upon what you put into it.

Should you watch it: 

If you like extremely slow meditative movies.