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Topical Malady

MOVIE REVIEW
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Uncle-boonmee-who-can-recall-his-past-lives
Strand Releasing

Let’s recap Thai cinematic exports that have recently arrived on these shores. Given their popularity at home and abroad, Tony Jaa’s muay Thai flicks are perhaps the most representative of the indigenous Thai cinema. There have also been numerous attempts to capitalize on the pan-Asian horror wave, including “Shutter” and offerings from the Pang brothers. On occasion, there are exposés on transsexuals such as “Beautiful Boxer” and “The Iron Ladies” or historical epics such as “The Legend of Suriyothai” and “Bang Rajan.” Then there are festival favorites by the likes of Wisit Sasanatieng and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Of this diverse crop, critics in the West are en masse heralding the extremely idiosyncratic work of Messrs. “Joe” Weerasethakul and “Sid” Sasanatieng as the vanguard of the Thai new wave. This year, that movement finally emerged as the next major national cinema when Mr. Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” claimed the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the film, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is not so much recalling his past life as witnessing the reappearance of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) as an apparition and his long-missing son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) in a gorilla costume — he has apparently transformed into a “monkey ghost.”

Many of the aforementioned movies draw from Thailand’s rich history and traditions, but Mr. Weerasethakul seems more interested in further mystifying his culture to advance himself in the Eurocentric festival circuit. While he doesn’t blatantly suck up to Western critics in the way that Mr. Sasanatieng did in giving Chuck Stephens a cameo role in “Citizen Dog,” Mr. Weerasethakul is no less pandering to the demands of festival-programming Marco Polos for ethnographic art films that have little resemblance to modern life in Asia. The exotic “otherness” in foreign cultures is apparently a hot commodity in a thoroughly Westernized world.

Mr. Weerasethakul’s self-mythologizing lore has all the qualities a culture broker looks for in an Asian film: primal characters, unspoiled scenery, ancient legends, lost-in-translation cultural pastiches and faux philosophical musings on spirituality and reincarnation. “Uncle Boonmee” is a pleasant enough experience, but it doesn’t say anything and is instead content to merely project the sort of neo-Orientalism of which festival programmers and art-house patrons are so enamored.

There are going to be people who pretend to like the film because they’d feel intellectually inferior by admitting they don’t get it. But truth is, there’s nothing to get. “Uncle Boonmee” makes you feel worldly for fully immersing yourself in a culture so far removed from your own, and then feel better about yourself for living in a developed and civilized world unlike Mr. Weerasethakul’s backward Thailand.

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Comments

Wow, dude. Where do I even begin with this? I know, we got into this extensively on Twitter, and I'll probably end up merely restating some of the points I tried to raise there. For what it's worth, I finally saw this film yesterday, and I absolutely loved it. It's a dream movie about life, death and the awareness of mortality, and regardless of its distinctly ethnic bent, I think it has the power to hit on more universal nerves than you give credit for. And simply on a formal level, it's a stunning achievement, with some of the most staggering instances of surreal imagery and sound design I've seen in any movie this year. I, for one, was enthralled, enchanted and moved throughout...and, not that I can necessarily prove this to you, but I'm not just pretending to like it because I feel like I should just because lots of older, whiter critics seem to like it.

My larger issue with your take on this film, though, is that it seems to me to have been made in bad faith at the start. I don't disagree that there are probably lots of other Thai films that aren't getting the same kind of world-cinema traction as those by Weerasethakul or Sasanatieng; personally, I have the same suspicions about what most of us consider the "Romanian New Wave." (Surely not all films that come out of Romania can be as aggressively miserablist as most of the ones that become film-festival hits.) It's a point worth considering, surely...but that strikes me as barely relevant in evaluating a particular film itself on its own terms—terms that you seem to have not even bothered to engage with because of suspicions about the filmmaker's motives, none of which are apparent in the film as Weerasethakul has made it. Uncle Boonmee "doesn't say anything," you say? Personally, I think it says a lot with a minimum of means, but that's just me.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that your review barely seems to be about the film itself, and more about your suspicions about the audience reaction to the film. That doesn't strike me as a particularly constructive way of approaching a film in general.

But then, personally, I didn't come away from this film thinking that this was the way life actually was in Thailand. I was just thinking that I had seen a beautiful film.

One more thing: I'm furthermore not sure how constructive it is to suggest dishonest motives on the part of certain critics praising the film. I'm sorry if this offends you, but that strikes me as veering perilously close to Armond White territory.

Kenji is right on. M Tsai, you're reviewing the circumstances surrounding the film, not the film itself, which is a stunning sensory experience like few others. I'm a little sad that your hang-ups prohibited you from getting into it.

I watched this film and wept because I could not retrieve the two hours I had squandered watching it - hoping against hope that a veil would lift and the movie would become, well, interesting. The movie is slow, plodding and disjoint, the acting is wooden and monotone, and the story is non-existent. I am beginning to believe that this film is a giant inside joke of the big-screen elites being played on the hoi polloi they feel are too base to appreciate their subtly. "Uncle Bore-me and a bunch of unrelated vignettes" more like - it says nothing.

I'll come out and say it: I don't believe that you can really say you like this film for its story. I'm not stupid, and I live in a pan-oriental society, so I can state unequivocally that I found nothing interesting, intriguing, or redeeming in the movie. And I've been to Thailand - with Thais, both upper class urban elite, and from rural farms, and this is not the Thailand of the Thais. I have no hangups, as far as this forgettable cinematic experience goes, either. But it is funny that the status quo must be supported by the fawning elite-wanna-bes, so they resort to ad hominem attacks.

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