NYFF: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

By robbiefreeling | REVERSEBLOG: the reverse shot blog September 25, 2010 at 2:09AM

What should be mentioned first is the quiet. But when discussing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives many will undoubtedly initially gravitate towards the monkey ghosts, the talking catfish, the materializing spirits. Yet it’s the hushed beauty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that perhaps most unites them, and which helps make his latest—the surprise Palme d’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—what it is, atmospherically, temperamentally, spiritually. The natural wonder of Apichatpong’s Northern Thailand, the swaying branches and grasses of its restive jungles and fields, its crickets and birds, breezes and hums, are all-encompassing on screen, thanks to the filmmaker’s immersive, simple yet forceful sound design, itself a gentle Buddhist gesture. Watching and listening, we are united with every living thing on screen, and we become aware of our place in the cosmos.
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What should be mentioned first is the quiet. But when discussing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives many will undoubtedly initially gravitate towards the monkey ghosts, the talking catfish, the materializing spirits. Yet it’s the hushed beauty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that perhaps most unites them, and which helps make his latest—the surprise Palme d’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—what it is, atmospherically, temperamentally, spiritually. The natural wonder of Apichatpong’s Northern Thailand, the swaying branches and grasses of its restive jungles and fields, its crickets and birds, breezes and hums, are all-encompassing on screen, thanks to the filmmaker’s immersive, simple yet forceful sound design, itself a gentle Buddhist gesture. Watching and listening, we are united with every living thing on screen, and we become aware of our place in the cosmos.

What should be mentioned second is the karaoke song. Yes, though the solitude of Apichatpong’s worlds are rarely disturbed by a musical soundtrack of any kind, Uncle Boonmee, like the beguiling Syndromes and a Century before it, ends with an incongruously upbeat pop tune, this one called “Acrophobia.” Occasional disjunctions such as that are among the chief pleasures of the Thai artist’s features, that stream-of-consciousness quality so definitively announced in his first feature, the exquisite corpse–style Mysterious Object at Noon. For a filmmaker with such an identifiable and unified aesthetic approach, Apichatpong seems most tickled by the odd detour. It’s what separates him from most of today’s acclaimed art-house formalists: he offers long takes, but not exclusively or even meticulously. His pace is unhurried but he’ll stop a scene if necessary; his cutting is intuitive and impulsive, rather than overdetermined, resulting in a cinema that more effectively mirrors a dream state than that of any filmmaker outside of David Lynch. His tone is solemn, yet he’s not above deflating the mood with a smile, so good-natured is he. He’s political yet focused on the smallest gestures between people—or between humans and animals. The silence and the silly song, together—two chambers of the same open heart. Read Michael Koresky's review.

What should be mentioned first is the quiet. But when discussing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives many will undoubtedly initially gravitate towards the monkey ghosts, the talking catfish, the materializing spirits. Yet it’s the hushed beauty of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that perhaps most unites them, and which helps make his latest—the surprise Palme d’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—what it is, atmospherically, temperamentally, spiritually. The natural wonder of Apichatpong’s Northern Thailand, the swaying branches and grasses of its restive jungles and fields, its crickets and birds, breezes and hums, are all-encompassing on screen, thanks to the filmmaker’s immersive, simple yet forceful sound design, itself a gentle Buddhist gesture. Watching and listening, we are united with every living thing on screen, and we become aware of our place in the cosmos.

What should be mentioned second is the karaoke song. Yes, though the solitude of Apichatpong’s worlds are rarely disturbed by a musical soundtrack of any kind, Uncle Boonmee, like the beguiling Syndromes and a Century before it, ends with an incongruously upbeat pop tune, this one called “Acrophobia.” Occasional disjunctions such as that are among the chief pleasures of the Thai artist’s features, that stream-of-consciousness quality so definitively announced in his first feature, the exquisite corpse–style Mysterious Object at Noon. For a filmmaker with such an identifiable and unified aesthetic approach, Apichatpong seems most tickled by the odd detour. It’s what separates him from most of today’s acclaimed art-house formalists: he offers long takes, but not exclusively or even meticulously. His pace is unhurried but he’ll stop a scene if necessary; his cutting is intuitive and impulsive, rather than overdetermined, resulting in a cinema that more effectively mirrors a dream state than that of any filmmaker outside of David Lynch. His tone is solemn yet he’s not above deflating the mood with a smile, so good-natured is he. He’s political yet focused on the smallest gestures between people—or between humans and animals. The silence and the silly song, together—two chambers of the same open heart.

There’s such unforced beauty in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films that for those familiar with his work, Uncle Boonmee’s opening won’t come as a revelation but a signature movement; for those unaccustomed, it’ll be remarkably splendid. A silhouette of an ox, barely outlined against a night sky, tethered to a tree in a field beneath the stars, incense smoke rising from the living ground at its feet. Celestial nighttime is to Apichatpong what magic hour is to Malick—the beauty of the natural world just visible in the bluish darkness (think of Tropical Malady’s erotic midnight hunting, the jungle folding in on its lovers like a closing palm). Soon the ox releases itself and gallops off, only to be recaptured, its spirit lassoed once again. But creeping in the darkness nearby is another creature, walking upright, with glowing red eyes like laser pointers.