Sunday, 20 January 2013
Film Review | Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [Lung Buỵmī ralụk chāti] (2010)
The film focuses on the final days of the titular Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) as his health deteriorates due to kidney failure. Surrounding himself with friends and family, Boonmee also receives an unexpected visit from the ghost of his dead wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) as well as his long-absent son (Jeerasak Kulhong), no longer in human form.
There's evidence throughout Uncle Boonmee that director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a filmmaker of some skill. The director's choice to shoot the entire film on 16mm film - partially an artistic choice, but also a budgetary one - gives the film an aesthetic link to classic cinema, as well as an unpolished feel which fits well with the traditional aspects of Thai culture referred to constantly throughout the film. The director's use of sound is by far the film's strongest feature; largely without a musical score, Weerasethakul skilfully weaves diegetic sound into his scenes. Regularly oppressive and invasive, the director's precise use of sound at times recalls the work of cinematic master David Lynch.
Lynch's surreal and heavily stylized approach to film is in many ways an accurate comparison from Western cinema to Weerasethakul's aesthetic throuhgout Uncle Boonmee. It's a shame then that the comparison cannot also be made with regards to the director's success. Weerasethakul's film is often a tedious exercise, sluggishly paced and with a hotchpotch narrative regularly impossible to follow. Time and again the director hangs around on very ordinary shots for no apparent reason, causing things to be frustratingly slow for the viewer. The acting from many of the cast also feels decidedly wooden, a decision the director has indicated that is a deliberate reference to the style of old TV programmes from Thailand. Deliberate or not, it's a decision which gives the director's work an amateurish quality which regularly impacts upon the film negatively.
Most frustrating of all, however, is Uncle Boonmee's at times near incomprehensible plot. The film shifts almost wantonly from one unconnected sequence to the next - one moment we're watching Boonmee and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) discussing honey production on his farm; the next we're seeing a princess we've never met before having a questionable encounter with a smooth-talking catfish. The narrative choices are at times so esoteric as to be impenetrable - unless you have an in-depth knowledge of Buddhist theology and mythology, as well as Thai culture and tradition, you'll regularly find yourself completely lost as to what's going on or what relation it bears to the central story of Boonmee's illness and death. Weerasethakul also chooses to introduce characters key to what is happening in the film without any introduction or even warning, as well as allowing others to disappear unexplained. As I've said before, I'm all for films that refuse to pack themselves with an overkill of exposition, but it feels as though Weerasethakul actively wants his film to be a chore to get through.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives therefore ends up as a film which I found impossible to enjoy. I appreciate the artistry that has clearly gone into many parts of its creation as well as the ambition in what Weerasethakul has attempted; however, the slothful pace, perpetually poker-faced performances and unfathomable plot make it really quite a boring experience.