Friday, 6 January 2012
#19 Thailand — Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Why I chose this: Apichatpong (or Joe as he likes to be called) is one of my favourite contemporary directors. This week was the first time I got a chance to see his Palme D'Or winning 2010 feature, so what better film to review for my Thailand segment?
Joe is a master of duality and context. In Syndromes and a Century, the juxtaposition of two similar stories set in different places/times makes a perfectly normal trip to the dentist a heartbreaking allegory for the breakdown of brotherhood in the modern world. In Tropical Malady, the placing of a feverish nightmare hunting segment after a love story gives it insane depths of new meaning. In Uncle Boonmee, a princess having sex with a catfish is put alongside visits from a red-eyed monkey-spirit to show... Nope, lost me.
Perhaps there is actually a wealth of hidden meaning in this film. Perhaps I'm just not in tune with the director, or am too simple to understand what's going on. Or perhaps Joe has just created a film with as little concrete meaning as possible in the vein of early Bunuel or Kiarostami's characters and dressed it up with pretty images and mysticism to make us think it's deep. Let us not forget that it was Tim Burton who presented this with Cannes greatest prize; a director to whom "style over substance" is a way of life.
That is not to say that I didn't find anything to take out of Uncle Boonmee, nor does it mean that I didn't enjoy it. The film follows a stream of consciousness through a dying man's memories of his other lives — think of a less substantial implementation of Tarkovsky's Zerkalo — which invokes themes of the power of memory, nostalgia and the essence of life along the way. These themes aren't so much explored as they are vaguely suggested, but the idea of themes is that you at least give us some direction to go in (cf. Antonioni), not just say "think about memory for a minute. Good, now think about erotic fish".
One aspect which is not lost from his other films is the visuals; the images are still breathtakingly beautiful, the trees still an incredible shade of green, the light still shifting and parting over the frame. Another is the mystical and dreamy atmosphere, constructed by the languid pacing, free-form editing and otherworldly imagery. If you found yourself captivated by the second half of Tropical Malady, or hypnotised by the camera's hospital wanderings in Syndromes and a Century, you will be transfixed once again.
Uncle Boonmee is both astonishingly beautiful and unnecesarily opaque. Viewers may fall in love with the style of the film, but there's only so much that two hours of pretty pictures can do without anything to back them up.
Also recommended from Thailand:
The Last Life in the Universe
I also watched Scorpio Rising this week, which was great. That's one down on my New Years Film Challenge, 29 to go.