Top 250 Tuesday #212 – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #212 on the list, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

Most of my familiarity with Thai films has, thus far, come in the form of action flicks such as the Ong Bak trilogy and Tom-Yum-Goong. Thus, I went into Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives really not knowing what to expect, especially since the only information that I really had about the movie was some good word of mouth, the knowledge that it had won the Palmee d’Or  at Cannes, and this trailer:

Even after watching the film, when I turned to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about it, I found that this was the entirety of the plot synopsis:

The film centers on the last days in the life of its title character. Together with his loved ones – including the spirit of his dead wife and his lost son who has returned in a non-human form – Boonmee explores his past lives as he contemplates the reasons for his illness.

Yeah, not really a lot to go on there. (Just to note, there is more info on the background of the film there, but as far as the actual plot summary, that’s it.) There’s a reason for that, though.

u1You see, despite what the trailer might lead you to believe, this is not really some kind of outre movie involving scary ghosts and demons in the woods or anything like that. As a matter of fact, some of the most disturbing images have nothing to do with those elements at all, but rather with other aspects of life in Thailand.

As a matter of fact, this really isn’t a plot-driven movie at all. Instead, what director Apichatpong Weerasethaku has delivered is a visual meditation on life, on death, on the afterworld, and on reincarnation, and as such, it is both effective and evocative.

Now, understand: although I’m saying that the plot of this movie is not complex, I am not saying that the film itself is not complex. In fact, at times it is quite challenging. It’s simply that those challenges come in the form of ideas, rather than surprises, and as someone who is not a Thai, and thus has to approach these ideas from a western perspective, the challenge is perhaps even more daunting because of their inherent unfamiliarity.  As a matter of fact, I am certain that there are some points being made that are simply lost because of that lack of perspective.

u2One thing, though, that I can say about this film is that it is truly gorgeous. Director Weerasethaku used a 16mm camera to shoot the film, and it does show, but while part of the reason for that was purely economic, in the end it proves a good choice as it serves the film very well, not only adding a touch of grain that gives it a depth and warmth that might not be achievable otherwise, but also at the same time adding in ways to the otherworldly atmosphere that permeates the entire endeavor.

In the end, the best recommendation I can give to someone who is contemplating watching this film for the first time is this: go back to the top of the page and watch that trailer again, but this time, don’t watch it trying to find out what the movie is about. Instead, just let yourself get absorbed into the atmosphere that the trailer is attempting to create. If you find yourself able to do that, if you find that that exercise speaks to you in some way, then it’s likely that the film will, too. If not, then likely neither will the movie.

So what are your thoughts on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Do you think I’m completely off the mark here, or not? Let me know in the comments below.

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