Cannes 2010. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"

David Hudson

Cannes 2010

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has generated the first truly electric buzz to come out of Cannes this year. Twitter began lighting up all but immediately after the first press screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives last night, and Cargo co-editor Ekkehard Knörer began collecting tweets, SMS alerts and Letras de Cine grades — a lot of 10s and 9s in there (and one 13.7).


"This solidifies [Joe] as the greatest director in the world right now" -- Robert Koehler (who thankfully doesn't know what I look like). Thu May 20 19:16:09 via Twitterrific Mike D'Angelo


"If you're familiar with Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul (affectionately known as 'Joe') — his previous films include Blissfully Yours, Syndromes and a Century and the astounding Tropical Malady — then you'll surely raise an eyebrow when I say that Uncle Boonmee may be his strangest and most mysterious picture yet, juxtaposing the earthly with the fantastic in a way that induces a nearly continuous trance state." Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club: "Joe being Joe, Uncle Boonmee's previous adventures in reincarnation barely figure into the quasi-narrative... but the film as a whole is devoted to limning the porous border separating this world from the next, to mesmerizing effect."

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is not just the best film of the festival; it makes everything else in competition — even the good stuff — look slapdash, lazy, hollow." Matt Noller at the House Next Door: "The final installment of Weerasethakul's multi-media art project Primitive, Uncle Boonmee marries the mysticism of previous films like Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century to a newfound political and intellectual engagement and an evolving aesthetic that draws as much from the avant-garde as from narrative filmmaking." Joe "seems genuinely to believe in things like spirits and reincarnation, beliefs that prompt an exploration for startling new ways to explore the metaphysical through film. He is one of just a handful of contemporary directors actively seeking to expand the boundaries of what cinema is and can do. Uncle Boonmee, though it will take more viewings and consideration to fully understand, could very well be his masterpiece."

"Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Salsaymar) is suffering from acute liver failure, and has decided to spend his last days in the Thai countryside, surrounded by his loved ones," writes Mark Adams in Screen. "Weerasethakul never actually makes it clear who or what Uncle Boonmee's past lives were — they could be the buffalo who escapes from the farm at the start of the film, the catfish which sexually toys with a facially disfigured princess in the centre of the film, or even flies that are swatted by a battery-powered fan — but rather lets the audience's imagination decide. The film was shot in the North-East of Thailand, and the lush and visually arresting jungle backdrop is as much a character of the film as the actors in the foreground."

"[T]here's little way you can dislike a film that delivers lines like 'I couldn't have been this way if I hadn't mated with a monkey ghost' with a perfectly straight face — but it felt to this viewer like a wispy lark with no emotional payoff." Guy Lodge at In Contention: "I'm quite willing to submit that I Might Not Get It."

Micropsia posts a "message from Chaisiri Jiwarangsan, one of Joe's assistants and friends, just as a reminder of what Apichatpong's presence in Cannes this year bears and means..."

Earlier this month, Kong Rithdee spoke with Apichatpong for the Bangkok Post: "What I'm interested in are fantastical beings, ghosts, memories, spirits. The curiosity about the existence of those things is in our nature. To me, birth and death are not opposites, they're both parts of our memory. The ability to recall our previous incarnations is relevant to the curiosity about ghosts or the prospects of future lives." On shooting on 16mm: "It's because of the budget. I could shoot either digital or 16mm, but not 35mm. Because everybody is going digital, film is becoming primitive. But the extinction of this medium — film — is related to the concept of Uncle Boonmee, which talks about the extinction of belief, and it concerns my idea about the extinction of old movies, the kind that nobody wants to make any more."

In Independencia, Antoine Thirion has three questions for Apichatpong. One of his answers resonates especially in the wake of the recent clash between the Red Shirts and the government in Bangkok: "I can't tell at what direction my filmmaking is heading. But politics is a prominent possibility."


The Hollywood Reporter interviews Joe, too; David Jenkins profiles him for Time Out London.

Apichatpong's Phantoms of Nabua is on view at the BFI Gallery in London through July 3; John Arthur Peetz talks with him about it for Artforum.

Updates: "It's barely a film; more a floating world." Sukdev Sandhu in the Telegraph: "To watch it is to feel many things — balmed, seduced, amused, mystified. It's to feel that one is encountering a distinctive metaphysics far removed from that on display in most contemporary cinema." This is "his most accessible and most enchanted film to date."

"Many sequences have a brooding lyrical beauty, the film's rhythms are at once elastic and mesmerising, and the narrative features disconcerting shifts that may mystify viewers unfamiliar with his earlier work," writes Geoff Andrew in Time Out London. "But at the same time one does perhaps wonder why so many admirers of Joe's work are quite so unbridled in their enthusiasm. I myself see no reason to be any more indulgent towards a Buddhist belief in reincarnation than I am towards similar Western superstitions, so my interest in monkey ghosts and talking catfish is constrained by my feelings that such characters are simply implausible, especially when the former — black hairy things with gleaming red eyes — look as if they've strayed in from a Star Wars picture."

"Like Weerasethakul's other movies, the imagery contains lushness even though the context never moves far beyond impenetrably difficult rationalizations," writes Eric Kohn for indieWIRE. "But just as Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century used its full two hours to reach a sense of full-bodied purpose — time was its greatest asset — Uncle Boonmee lights up with marvelous imagery and invention from its very first scene."

And the award for best press kit -- an actual hardbound book with gorgeous interior design -- goes to Fri May 21 22:36:04 via Twitterrific Mike D'Angelo


Update, 5/22: Wise Kwai has been rounding up news and views.

Updates, 5/23: "The film was inspired by a book by a Buddhist abbot recording accounts of people who remembered their past lives," notes Maggie Lee in the Hollywood Reporter. "Although Boonmee attributes his illness to the karma of his having killed too many 'Commies' and rid his farm of bugs, Weerasethakul does not broach the subject in terms of causality or retribution, nor does he tie Boonmee's past lives to any tangible persona or timeline. The cave which becomes his resting place is also where his first life began. The crucial point he recalls is that at his genesis, he was 'neither human nor animal, neither man nor woman.'... The director's film language has always been experimental, intuitive and personal to the point of mystical (or mystifying to a mainstream non-Thai audience). By comparison, Uncle Boonmee employs less difficult cinema vocabulary, staying away from any avant garde filming technique and allowing one to tune into its sleepy, meditative frequency."

"Uncle Boonmee — immediately dubbed 'Uncle Bonghit' by press-room wags — offers a somewhat more comprehensible narrative than Apichatpong's previous films, but that's not saying a whole lot," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "I have no problem with Apichatpong or his dreamlike movies. If you're feeling adventurous, and willing to detach from normal narrative expectations, you might find Uncle Boonmee richly rewarding. I do wonder whether there's something odd about the way Western critics have embraced him. Maybe it reflects an ultra-sophisticated form of Orientalism, or maybe it's just 'Mekons syndrome,' meaning the critic's tendency to overvalue obscure material beloved primarily by other critics."

Wendy Ide in the London Times: "The film's enchantment is at its most potent during a pilgrimage by Boonmee and his family to a cave high in the hills — the throbbing growl on the soundtrack creates a kind of aural architecture for the dying man's gateway from this life to the next. It's spine-tingling stuff. Directly afterwards we are returned to the mundane reality of life after Boonmee's death — a place where prosaic funeral arrangements are discussed in featureless hotel rooms, and the ghosts have retreated to the forests. But by this time, the film's spell has taken effect and its curious magic is evident everywhere from the saffron of a monk's robes to the gaudy fairy lights of a low-rent karaoke bar."

Dennis Lim talks with Joe for the New York Times.

And, as you'll have heard, Uncle Boonmee has won the Palme d'Or. Here's a complete list of this year's winners at Cannes.

Updates, 5/24: In frieze, Dan Fox sees Uncle Boonmee's win as "an apt moment to mention a recent spat that has had certain film critics lobbing handfuls of organic flapjack at each other across the auditoriums of their local art-house uniplexes." Yes, it's the CCC/Slow Cinema debate.

A quick plot rundown from the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: Uncle Boonmee "has come to the forest with Laotian nurse Jaai (Samud Kugasang), his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his young cousin Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). At the dinner table, they are astonished when the ghost of Boonmee's wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), appears to them. Huay has come to give modest advice on the manner in which we must surrender to death. But this is not all: the spirit of Boonmee's son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who disappeared many years ago, presents himself reincarnated as a forest monkey spirit — a hairy, Wookieish creature. Baldly recounted, these events sound ridiculous, and yet it all has something sublime and visionary about it, with a spiritual quality I can't remember seeing in any film recently. Uncle Boonmee offers pleasure and heartbreak in equal measure."

Everything you wanted to know about Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but were too afraid to ask: fab links at Unspoken Cinema Mon May 24 12:55:20 via webCatherine Grant


Updates, 5/25: Daniel Kasman here in The Daily Notebook: "It is probably as simple a film as Apichatpong, whose cinema is lovingly cryptic, can get, as if a human radiance humbly simplifies everything, from the mysteries of death and melancholy, to the origin of the world and friendship, family, and the dead gathering over a night's dinner."

Steve Rose talks with Joe for the Guardian.

Listening (22'11"). Cristina Nord interviews Joe for Cargo.

"Hero's welcome promised for Apichatpong," reports Wise Kwai from Thailand.

Updates, 5/26: "[B]efore the Thai Culture Ministry starts waving the flag in celebration, it should take a minute to recall Apichatpong's comments on the issue of film censorship. After all, strict censorship is obstructive to directors like Apichatpong, discouraging them from exploring innovative themes," argues Bangkok's The Nation.

This "entrancing, strange, film echoes the second section of Tropical Malady," notes Patrick Z McGavin. "In that earlier film, the first part tracks the playful relationship that develops between a provincial ice cream truck driver and a good looking soldier. The second part is about the truck driver pursuing the soldier deep into the Thai jungle, believing he has transmogrified into a ghost tiger. 'The movie is an homage to my home, and to a certain kind of cinema I grew up with,' Weerasethakul said in the press notes. Like all of the director's films, Uncle resists simple classification in narrative terms. It is best just to submit to the dreamy, slow and sensual rhythms that simply take hold."

Updates, 5/28: Dennis Lim for Artforum: "I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong's objections: 'Better to leave it all jumbled,' he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me both as his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies."

"It takes both prior knowledge and alertness to pick up on Joe's humanely political subtext within such a meditative experience, the most overt reference when Boonmee claims that killing communists is what instigated his sickness," writes Aaron Hillis in Moving Pictures. "An out-of-left-field series of photographs depicts soldiers posing between battles, holding the leashes of animals as if hinting that the military forces are responsible for reincarnation — i.e. killing innocent men. A million readings can be made in all that fades and resurfaces in Uncle Boonmee, and cinephiles should look forward to the day when a brave distributor releases it for more adventurous audiences."

"Apichatpong, who also goes by 'Joe,' studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a Facets fan from way back. He recently sent us a list of his top ten favorite films."

Page at Cannes (In Competition). Interview (video). Audio from the press conference. Cannes 2010: Coverage of the coverage index.

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