Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
August 17, 2015 11:55 AM - Subscribe

On his deathbed, Uncle Boonmee recalls his many past lives.

“The film... is unquestionably strange, at times mystifyingly oblique. Those who insist on a linear narrative or an easily identifiable set of themes may find themselves puzzled, perhaps to the point of frustration. But it is hard to see how this movie, with its contemplative mood and genial, curious spirit, could make anybody angry. On the contrary: encountered in an appropriately exploratory frame of mind, it can produce something close to bliss.” - New York Times Review

Roger Ebert's review

The Guardian's interview with the writer/director

The Cinema Primeval (Reverse Shot essay)
posted by naju (25 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Here are the next 5 films to vote on. Some might be harder to find than others, but rest assured we have a private, secure server for you to obtain all of them. Get in touch with ryanrs and he'll give you a username/password.

Also, If you'd like to volunteer to select the film choices for next time, send me a memail!
posted by naju at 12:09 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

This has been on my list of stuff to watch when I think about it for a long time, and I'm glad it was the first movie here. Its been a really long time since I've seen something that had the core of calm that this had. It took a while for me to fall into it, but by the time the dinner with Boonmee's wife and son showed up, I was all in.

The scene in the middle with the princess and the catfish (that sounds like a Kate Beaton story title) was shocking at first, it felt out of place while I was watching it, but in retrospect, it was a good moment of "something else" for lack of a better term, just a moment of unreality inside a world where that's completely normal.

I absolutely loved the scene near the end where they are walking through the forest and then down into the cave, it felt almost like watching a nature documentary, every moment was full of awe for what was around the people, not the people themselves. And then when they see the monkey spirits walking next to them its startling, but not entirely surprising, I figured that it was his son's family coming to see him off.
posted by hobgadling at 12:25 PM on August 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes, hobgadling has it right. The "core of calm" is what makes this movie for me. There is some strange shit that goes down in this movie but never once is it meant to shock or upset you. The family's acceptance of these ghosts and forest spirits into the material world as part of the natural order of things without falling into a deep vat of "Woo" really struck me.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:31 PM on August 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

My house watched this last night and it was beautiful and engrossing, but I'm looking forward to reading all the linked reviews/articles because I'm hoping to get the different pieces of story to fit together better for me. One of my favorite things was how the movie took it for granted that ghosts and spirits would show up and sit down to dinner - the film did a good job of capturing the sense of being near to death (time slowing down, the border between life and afterlife getting thin) while also giving a more general feeling of otherworldliness (since after all everyone can see the ghosts and spirits, not just Uncle Boonmee). I loved how the movie was slow-paced but still felt like it had a lot of story to tell - I was never bored even though you could probably describe a lot of the movie as "boring."

I'm curious for other people's takes on how time splits(?) at the end of the movie since that's the part I'm having the hardest time making sense of. It's a great continuation of the dreaminess of the rest of the movie, but it goes beyond past lives into parallel worlds and seems to play with time in a different way from the rest of the movie.
posted by jessypie at 6:03 PM on August 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

This group is getting off to a great start! I watched it a couple of nights ago, so I've had a bit of time to incubate my thoughts on it. The editing choices in it were really interesting to me, because of how they totally dodge the ingrained impulses of Western genre film.

When Boonmee's wife materializes at dinner, it's in the middle of a long sustained cover shot of Boonmee/Jen/Tong sitting at the dinner table. There's no music cue or sudden change of angle on the appearance; she simply appears bit by bit, fading into view as though she'd always been there. Nothing in the direction calls attention to it besides the reactions of the characters. Which makes sense: She's not a horror ghost that jumps out at you, but a comforting spirit.

Once she's become fully opaque, Weerasethakul does another curious thing: He immediately cuts away from the cover shot and focuses just on Boonmee, with Jen and Tong on either side. As Boonmee speaks to her, we hear only her voice from offscreen for a long chunk of the conversation. IIRC, she doesn't appear back in frame until Jen pulls out the family photos to show her. It's as though the movie doesn't care that she's a ghost, and is treating her exactly like any other character.

Which makes it even stranger when moments later, the film indulges in a little bit of old-fashioned horror imagery with the son's appearance, having him float out of the shadows in his red-eyed ape guise. (Apparently the monkey spirits are creatures that show up in Thai monster movies, so their usage here can be seen as a pop culture homage to the cinema of Weerasethakul's youth) But the movie immediately cuts the tension by having the family calmly invite him to sit at the table, undercutting the initial terror by turning it into something a bit silly and a bit sad. All sorts of things happen in this movie that could be easily played for shocking effect through genre cliche, but Weerasethakul uses the larger language of cinema to make them all seem like just another part of normal life.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:17 PM on August 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

BTW, being familiar with a couple of the movies in the next set of picks but not the others, I took a moment to find some trailers to see what piqued my interest. I figured I'd share some links to go along with naju's IMDB info:
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:00 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

There was a "prequel" short of sorts, called A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, which came out in 2009. That link has information and the short as an embedded video, which I can't find on Vimeo (though it hosts the video).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes! And even beyond the "core of calm" (I like that characterization best, too) treatment of the ghost and the monkey gods, the relationships between the human characters are overwhelmingly affectionate. Jen and Boonmee especially have a solid, comfortable camaraderie. They're as comfortable in their own world as they are in the others. They're really likable characters, too.

I'm curious for other people's takes on how time splits(?) at the end of the movie since that's the part I'm having the hardest time making sense of. It's a great continuation of the dreaminess of the rest of the movie, but it goes beyond past lives into parallel worlds and seems to play with time in a different way from the rest of the movie.

Yeah, I don't know either, and was hoping someone might have a take on that. The closest I can come to is that there seems to be a sort of fluidity among different times and worlds that is breaking down a little bit in that scene. When Jen and the monk get up to go out, and he turns around to see them still on the bed watching TV, maybe the boundaries between the different realities are sort of closing off?

I honestly don't know, but I love that scene no matter what it means.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:36 PM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I was pretty confused by that ending as well, but I filed it into one of those things that I didn't understand, it just happened that way, like the wife and son showing up without much fuss.
posted by hobgadling at 7:15 AM on August 18, 2015

If anything sticks with me, it's just before the walk to the cave, when Jen states (with resignation?) that Boonmee is going mad, and Huay is a ghost going mad. To me, that doesn't speak of acceptance of the ghosts, more of having never known a world without ghosts. Acceptance doesn't come into it.
posted by suckerpunch at 6:59 PM on August 18, 2015

I really enjoyed this one, a lot more than the director's previous film Tropical Malady. I don't have a definitive answer for a lot of questions about what happened in the film, but I'm happy to ponder on them.

One thing about the princess and the catfish scene: I may be imagining in order to try to impose more narrative sense on the scene, but I thought the voice of the catfish was the voice of the actor playing Boonmee. There's also a sort of echo in that scene with the princess's insecurity about her appearance. There's an interchange between Boonmee and Jen early in the film in which he mentions that she used to be a beauty queen and she sort of laughs it off. Again, I could be trying to make sense out of something that defies it, but I thought that scene was a possible past life encounter between the two characters. This is at least partially because of the title of the film, of course.
posted by tomorrowromance at 6:54 AM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I probably need to take more time to process this whole thing, since I quite literally just finished watching it, but I agree with everyone about how ultimately comforting the movie is. I also loved how most of the time it doesn't even feel like a movie, but instead we're a fly on the wall in the lives (and dreams maybe????) of these characters. A lot of things contribute to that feeling: all of the long, quiet, mundane shots of people just going about living their lives, the perfectly natural dialogue between the characters, the fact that there is no score or any music at all until the final scene (I think). That's what makes some of the more fantastical elements stand out, like the catfish and the princess, the red eyed monkey people, the ghosts, the weirdo time split thing at the end, and yet it also makes all of those things feel perfectly natural, too. Actually, maybe not the time split at the end, that still feels off, and it's interesting that that's the one time in the movie where music is playing (again, I think, maybe I'm just misremembering the movie I finished watching three minutes ago). Anyway, yeah, I liked this quite a bit.
posted by Timmoy Daen at 9:29 AM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

the fact that there is no score or any music at all until the final scene (I think)

This was also how I remembered the film, and I almost made a reference to the lack of music here earlier but didn't trust my recollection either! IMDB lists only one other song in the soundtrack section for Uncle Boonmee, and that one seems like it might have been incidental/recorded specifically for the movie (they list the title as "Princess Poem 'Rewatta-Leelawadee'" - was there music during the catfish scene?).

The song from the final scene was a really nice touch - it felt especially powerful and conspicuous after little/no other music in the film, and it really underlined the fact that the final scene was so different from everything else we'd watched before. Plus the song fills a very specific niche for me of sounding like early/mid-90s Radiohead in a foreign language (like the Swedish band Kent) so now I have a new band to chase down online.
posted by jessypie at 11:09 AM on August 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been watching Weerasethakul's films for years and I never really got them until I saw Uncle Boonmee in the cavernous Alice Tully Hall during the New York FIlm Festival. Holy fucking shit — the film just opens up. It's flabbergasting. It's otherworldly. I will never forget the feeling of watching that film unspool for the first time. I've seen it twice more now, on Blu-ray, and while I still appreciate it, it's a completely different and lesser experience. On a big screen, in a huge room, well, it's magic -- a pretty stunning reminder of why the theatrical experience still has merit in the age of 55-inch 4K TV sets.
posted by Mothlight at 6:49 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I didn't quite know how to comment on this movie for the past two days this thread has been open. I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into, but I was game for it. And it really, really affected me. More than any movie I can remember, I felt like I was being carried along on a journey - not a scary journey, but a very benevolent one. The effect is one of deep connection - through time, place, sound, family, nature. Very little of it makes conscious, logical sense to me. There are entire sequences I can't justify with my waking senses. And yet, I understand the film in a way that transcends such thinking completely. It's a very odd thing, and I'm really thankful that Weerasethakul has plucked this ineffable yet urgent feeling from his mind and placed it on the screen for us in such a perfect way.

I like the review I read which says that this film doesn't challenge western ideas of what a film should be, so much as it casually disregards them completely. It brings to mind this link I came across on Metafilter a while ago, plot without conflict. We have this expectation that all plots inherently feature conflict and resolution, but this isn't a universal structure, and many eastern forms don't work that way. Uncle Boonmee isn't concerned with conflict and resolution. There are no enemies here, only ways of coming to terms with the the past and the present, and making our peace with the entirety of it.

I listened with headphones, and the soundtrack really jumped out at me. Even though there's only one conventional song, at the end, there's definitely a soundtrack. I think there are ambient field recordings of nature throughout the entirety of the film, and those are being manipulated at various points of the film. There are drones which rise in intensity during key moments. It's very effective. You feel like you're immersed in the outdoors, a stranger in the midst of a hive of activity, even during the indoors scenes. When that Penguin Villa song finally comes on at karaoke (so great!), it's a jolt to the senses. You feel like you've been in nature for hours, and you're finally awakening back into the civilized world. It's like stepping into a McDonald's after a week in the jungle.

Those final few sequences - the scenes with the priest shedding his robes, taking a shower, putting on street clothes, and heading out into the neon lit city with pop music - something about it felt like a gentle nudge back to reality. It was comforting too, in a way, even if the subtext is that we are leaving a rapidly fading spiritual plane. The gradual re-emergence of TV, restaurants, music came across to me less as a nightmare, and more of an integration of the spirit world with the modern world we all experience every day.

That's what the split at the end means to me, on a less-than-conscious level - it's a gentle way of reminding us that we are all able to reconcile the ancient, animistic, mystical world, with its comfort and care for us, with the world we now live in, the cold and scary world we inhabit. There's some deep feeling here that we are alright if we just adjust our mindset a little bit and focus on the right things. I've never seen a movie that has advocated for that so convincingly and unpretentiously.
posted by naju at 11:37 PM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

The next film will be A Field in England (trailer)! Looks pretty great. We're setting it for Monday, August 31. It appears to be streaming on Amazon's instant service. Enjoy, and let me know if you can't track it down.
posted by naju at 12:12 AM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's probably worth warning anyone who doesn't already know or suspect that A Field in England is nearly as upsetting as Uncle Boonmee is calming. Be prepared!
posted by tomorrowromance at 5:30 AM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was glad to have an excuse to see this. It's been on my Letterboxd watch list/queue for far too long. I, embarrassingly, fell asleep during TROPICAL MALADY, which I called "the gay ghost tiger movie" for a few years.

The introduction of the surreal intermingled with the commonplace and the calm, cricket-riddled atmosphere of the film was lovely and worked for me in a way that TROPICAL MALADY didn't. There were so many interesting moments, some of which had a very metaphor-made-literal/Synecdoche, New York feel to them. Culturally, I wonder what I'm missing as far as the cultural references and connection between the elements.

I made the mistake of watching it on a warm day and the slow pace and the cricket surround sound was even more of a lulling experience as it might have been.

Looking forward to discussing FIELD IN ENGLAND, even if I liked Wheatley's SIGHTSEERS a little better ;) His ability to jump genres and tones from film to film is stunning.
posted by Gucky at 9:25 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I will have a more serious comment after a bit of rumination, but after the monk showering scene I gotta wonder, how dirty is my back?!
posted by Literaryhero at 8:06 AM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

And pre-rumination, this movie is appealing even though I hate death.
posted by Literaryhero at 8:07 AM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not really great enough at fanfare to figure out where to put this, but holy fuck, I just watched The Tribe last night, and feel super strongly about its inclusion on our film list. It's entirely in Ukrainian sign language, yet the messages come across quite clearly. It sets the stage for a ton of situations that just wouldn't be possible in any other movie you've ever watched.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:07 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

That sounds amazing! Thanks, I just added it to our list. More suggestions always welcome.
posted by naju at 3:25 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hey guys, sorry I haven't been able to chip in here. I managed to get in a pre-Uncle Boonmee viewing of Weerasethakul's debut feature Mysterious Object at Noon, but things have been so hectic since then I haven't been able to squeeze in Boonmee itself. I'm going to try and catch up soon, though.

Is there any way to see what film's leading the poll for the next screening, or a cutoff date?
posted by Merzbau at 3:32 PM on August 30, 2015

Hmm, I guess I could share the results link (here's the most recent one; it's tied since people kept voting after the selection A Field In England was announced.) It might affect the vote in different ways if people could see what was leading and counteract - essentially the people who vote first have less information than the people who vote last, so there'd be an incentive to wait as long as possible. Blind seems to be the best way to go about it.

A cutoff date makes sense - I'd say if the post goes live on Monday, we could keep the voting open until that Friday. That gives people two weekends to get the viewing in.
posted by naju at 4:01 PM on August 30, 2015

La Grande Bouffe capture anyone's interest? It certainly is strange.
posted by Literaryhero at 5:45 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

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