Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)

Most of the time a movie review is essentially a personal opinion positioned in a distinct context. A person declares that a film was good because _______. Or they hate a film because of_______. And most of the time, for most people that's more than enough - it works and folks are satisfied because to some extent film represents a universal language (with the assistance of subtitles of course) and nearly everyone is fluent to some degree and will decide for themselves regardless.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, reminded me that the "universal language" of cinema is more of an unspoken agreement than a hard and fast rule. Film can, if it chooses to do so, express itself in a cultural and artistic dialect that is so thick and idiosyncratic that you may as well watch it with the subtitles off. It's possible that had I chosen to watch this movie without the subtitles I still might have come away with the nearly the same impression. What impression is that, you might ask: I have no idea.

I didn't hate this movie, but it would be the height of pretension for me to claim that I understood it well enough to have liked it, and to me, that seems to be an extremely UNsatisfying conclusion to arrive at. I wanted to like this film, not only because it was a success on the festival circuit, but because it is beautifully shot and obviously has a lot of heart. The performances are emotionally convicting and the tragic cultural history that it attempts to integrate into the narrative should definitely engender my sympathy. But I was far too busy feeling confused to truly appreciate these moments. For instance, if a woman (in a scene depicting one of Boonmee's past lives?) is going to make vigorous love to a magical catfish in the middle of the film, then I feel that- even if I didn't see it coming - when that scene ends I should be able to say to myself, "Of course that just happened - it makes sense that a thing like that should happen". In this case I just thought, WTF just happened! I've seen plenty of art films where nothing made sense, and when the credits rolled I was fine with that. But this is a personal narrative located within a real historical context and based on somebody's actual life. You should not find yourself viewing it with that level of empathetic detachment.

The popular critics who lauded this film seem to imply that viewers need to let the abstraction run its course, let the film be what it is and embrace the disjunctive moments as part of a greater, elliptical whole... perhaps. I believe that I attempted to do just that and may have failed.

I don't blame Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He certainly is not beholden to the likes of me when he sets out to make a film, and to his credit, most of the broader emotional energy accompanying the sickness and death of Boonmee translated very well. The scene in the cave was beautiful. But I felt like an outsider (culturally and artistically) to such an extent that by the time the film ended, I was almost entirely outside of any sense of empathy towards it. I don't think that is what he or Uncle Boonmee would have wanted. But like I said... I have no idea.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a very good storyteller and I feel like his most compelling work, the work that crosses boundaries the most readily are his short art films. They're quiet and simple, but I feel like there is so much power in them - they're a joy to watch.

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Thongaram, Samud Kugasang, Wallapa Mongkolprasert

> Cactus River (Khong Lang Nam) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5vT0T_ionU 
> Ashes - http://mubi.com/films/ashes/watch

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