Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives


by Tom Dunn

The final part of Weerasethakul’s ‘Primitive’ project continues the elusive, idiosyncratic exploration of northeast Thailand’s history that defined such previous pieces as A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (available to view online). Yet this feature-length instalment is also a fascinating piece of magical realist cinema in its own right, an enchanting vision of familial and cultural identity threatened by the approach of the modern world.

Ostensibly detailing the final days of the titular figure, the film forces the ailing Boonmee to reconsider his past lives, as a husband and a father, through the return of his dead wife’s spirit and missing son, now transformed into a Monkey Ghost; an elusive creature that lingers in the forest just outside of Boonmee’s village. Aiding Boonmee are his nephew, sister-in-law, and farmhands, who quickly learn to roll with the encroachment of fantasy into their mundane daily lives.

Weerasethakul’s clashing of two distinct realities is subtle and dream-like, aided by a distinct use of lingering takes and sparse, steady story-telling. Whilst Boonmee becomes reacquainted with the family he had lost in the relative modern day, we are treated to tangential glimpses of what may have been Boonmee and family’s actual former lives; the thwarted attempts of a bull to break free from its restraints, and the broken heart of a once exotic princess, mended through the bizarre love of a talking catfish. Against this gentle mysticism, threats of communist violence and the emptiness of the modern age break through and disrupt the richness of Thailand’s culture, with Boonmee’s future looking utterly devoid of the magic blooming throughout his past lives.

The metaphor may sound somewhat lofty, but through Weerasethakul’s non-Western approach to storytelling – heavily influenced by the likes of Ozu and Ichikawa – what results is an intriguing dream of life; a mood piece that lingers after watching. The film’s two hour run time, coupled with its elliptical narration and hints at something lurking much deeper, may put off viewers who prefer something a bit more fast paced, but if you’re wondering what a Miyazaki script directed by David Lynch may look like, this is the closest you’re going to get.

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