Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
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.