REVIEW: Monkey Ghosts and Amorous Catfish Bring Grace, Beauty and Weirdness to Uncle Boonmee

Movieline Score:

When Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, those of us at home who'd been following the young Thai filmmaker's career were thrilled -- and puzzled. The new movie, we'd heard, featured talking monkey ghosts and a catfish skilled in the art of cunnilingus -- in other words, it sounded pretty much like business as usual for the adamantly nonlinear filmmaker known more commonly as Joe, and I, for one, couldn't wait to see it. But it certainly didn't sound like a predictable choice for one of the most prestigious film prizes in the world, and it meant that Joe's rapturously twinkling little star was ready to shine brighter outside the relatively cloistered world of film nuts. Joe's work was poised to reach a broader audience, God help them.

I say that only because every time I've written about Joe's movies, I've received angry e-mails and comments from people who declare them the most boring movies on the planet, or the stupidest, or something. But I won't apologize for their so-called strangeness: That only does them a disservice -- they're supposed to be mystifying and a little unsettling. Evocative rather than diagrammatic, they're not the sort of thing you can dissect with a catchy, hit-getting "Everything You Need to Know About..." explainer piece. Besides, I'm not sure pictures like Joe's Tropical Malady (2004) or Syndromes and a Century (2006) are any more bizarre than, say, most of David Lynch's more out-there movies (or even his more in-there ones). If anything, Joe's sense of dream logic is more naturalistic than Lynch's, more grounded in the knowable world -- as much, that is, as we can know about nature -- and the luminous Uncle Boonmee is no exception.

There really is an Uncle Boonmee in Uncle Boonmee (played by Thanapat Saisaymar): He lives in the country, where he oversees a large orchard, and he's suffering from an ailment that is causing his kidneys to fail. Boonmee's nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, who played a character of the same name in Tropical Malady, and who also played a monk in Syndromes and a Century) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) have come to visit him. As they sit around an outdoor table in the evening, shooting the breeze and catching up on news, a shimmering presence gradually takes shape in one of the empty chairs. It's Uncle Boonmee's wife -- Jen's sister -- who died some years before. The group around the table are surprised to see her, but only mildly so. After a few minutes they become accustomed to her presence, as if she were a neighbor who'd stopped by unannounced but whose company wasn't unwelcome.

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  • festie says:

    holy cow,no pun intended, are you a pretentious self important hack. is called a lack of ability to tell or write a linear story. there are many people in this world that are capable of that in this world. should they be making movies? hell no, those are the people you try to avoid at all costs when they TRY to tell a story. why? because the couldnt tell a story if their lives depened on it. you are part of the problem in hollywood, style over substance. for that matter your style sucks too.

  • T. says:

    You, dear sir, are so busy talking about "stories" that you forgot cinema is not structurally built to be an exclusively narrative medium. That's called a novel. Cinema is about moving images.
    It is also hilarious that you describe the good old people in Hollywood as being 'style over substance'. That is a spectacular misreading of reality (and by the way, style IS substance, but I'm sure you've heard this one before).

  • David Alford says:

    I'm with Stephanie! A wonderous, if mystical, celebration of an essentially Buddhist world view, anatta, 'no self,' which is another way of describing the unity of all being. There are essentially no boundaries in this film, not being living and dead, not between animals and humans, not between monks and 'civilians,' not between 'civilization' and nature, not between genders, ages, nationalities. Uncle Boonmee's regrets about his earlier killing spree is entirely consistent with the very broad-scale portrayal of 'cosmic consciousness,' say. Sure, Weerasethakul's films require patience and a willingness to be mesmerized far more than simply entertained. And, I must say, the second viewing is far more satisfying too. I found myself really looking, really perceiving, really being with the characters, the animals, the forest, waterfalls, and, finally, myself, appreciating myself for entering this 'other world.'