Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives

I saw this a week or two ago at the IU Cinema and keep meaning to write something about it.  Perhaps all I have to say, really, is that it’s like a cross between Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 Dersu Uzala and Donnie Darko.  In fact, it is so much like that that I’ll be surprised if no one else has pointed it out.  I don’t remember Dersu Uzala very well as I haven’t seen it since the 1970s, when a somewhat eccentric friend of my father’s took me to see it.  I had assumed that this was when it was released, but checking the date, did he really take me when I was six years old???  (More likely it was a showing somewhere at least a few years later.)  I do remember being absolutely mystified by the movie, which is a Herzogian account of an early 20th-century native of the Siberian forests:

The film opens to a forest that is being cleared for development, and Arseniev searching for an unmarked grave. The film then flashes back to Arseniev’s surveying expedition to the area of Shkotovo in Ussuri region in 1902. A topographic expedition troop, led by Captain Arseniev, encounters a nomadic, aboriginal Nanai tribesman named Dersu Uzala who agrees to guide them through the harsh frontier. Initially viewed as an uneducated, eccentric old man, Dersu earns the respect of the soldiers through his great intelligence, accurate instincts, keen powers of observation, and deep compassion. He repairs an abandoned hut and leaves provisions in a birch container so that a future traveler would survive in the wilderness. He deduces the identities and situations of people by analyzing tracks and articles left behind.

Dersu Uzala saves the lives of Captain Arseniev and one of his men not once, but twice…  [wiki]

Uncle Boonmee combines a similar mysterious immersion-in-the-primeval-forest setting with cheesy (or what you would assume would seem cheesy, though do not really) sci-fi elements, namely hairy, Yeti-like “monkey ghosts” whose eyes are little bright red LED flashlight dots.  I was charmed to read that the director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was heavily influenced in this film by fond memories of watching Thai sci-fi/horror B, C and D-movies on t.v., movies so cheaply made that the monsters had to stay in the shadows so you wouldn’t see how bad their costumes were.

It’s quite a beautiful, strange, sometimes droll movie.  The animated films of Miyazaki would be another analogy: Weerasethakul’s style is less accessible, weirder, but the film shares with something like The Princess Monaoke a respect for the natural or nonhuman world as animate, numinous, and at once alien and welcoming. Perhaps the most memorably strange scene involves a princess with discolored skin (possibly from a burn?) who prays to a catfish god to heal her.  She wades into the pool and, no other way to say it, has sex with the catfish god: you actually see it wriggling and splashing between her legs.  Otherwise most of the movie takes place in a recognizably contemporary Thailand where Uncle Boonmee, who owns a little farm where he raises bees, lives through his final days before death, a process that involves conversations with various family members including both the ghost of his wife and his lost son who has now returned as a Monkey God: turns out he got lost in the jungle and mated with a female Monkey God, after which he became one himself.  Said son is basically in a gorilla suit but the effect is not comic but movingly strange; the fantasy elements somehow allow for the expression of deep feelings of sadness, regret, and love.

I started to think about the movie differently when I read that Weerasethakul seems to have intended Boonmee’s death, shot in somewhat grainy 16 mm., to represent the death of cinema itself: “When you make a film about recollection and death, you realise that cinema is also facing death. Uncle Boonmee is one of the last pictures shot on film – now everybody shoots digital. It’s my own little lamentation.”  There is also a Thai political angle — as a young government soldier, Boonmee hunted for and killed communists in the forests, actions he now regrets — that I didn’t feel equipped to interpret very deeply.

This would be better to see on the big screen than on DVD — it helps to feel immersed in its visual world.

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