The Only Living Boy in Nakon Phanom: A Review of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

Posted by Nick Curley

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
2010, Thailand, 114 minutes.

I downloaded Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives four months after it won the first prize “P’alme d’Or” at last year’s Tim Burton-curated Cannes Film Festival.  The title and subject held appeal, and I was amused to hear that at Cannes six years earlier Weerasethakul (who for the benefit of the lazy-tongued among us goes by the nickname “Joe”) premiered a film called Tropical Malady which had been met with loud choruses of booing.  Boonmee is similar in tone, cast, and setting to Malady, suggesting that either cheers overtook the boos, or that this film scratched something in Burton’s jury at the right time. 

So here I am chugging along on this download, before encountering a common film nerd problem: this bad mammajamma has no subtitles.  And so I had a somewhat otherworldly experience attempting to infer what was happening and why, while drinking in the lush green landscapes of northeastern Thailand, at the banks of the Mekong River near the border to Laos.  That the experience of watching (most of) this film without understanding a word of its dialogue may damn with faint praise, but is not intended that way.  The script is innovative, touching, and even pulled a few belly laughs from the Film Forum crowd at its Wednesday premiere a few weeks back.

More than the words on the page, I would be curious to read how if at all Joe scripts out mood, ambiance, and delivery of language into his screenplays.  Boonmee’s slow-moving scenes are as gorgeous a visual pastiche as we’ve seen in American theaters in some time.  Those willing to endure the meditative pace are rewarded with transcendent landscapes that truly seem to bring the viewer to another world entirely, as we watch life literally drained out of the title character in the present and watch it instilled back into him in the past (and possibly the future).

These long takes of nature in stasis grant us the opportunity to consider our own fertility and eventual demise in conjunction with that of the forest’s other living things, and in that sense makes even a thorough skeptic such as myself entranced by the idea of reincarnation, if only as a kind of fabled explanation for why places we’ve seemingly never been can look so deeply familiar.

The great achievement of Joe’s work is its capture of an ideal death: one of serenity, contemplation, flashbacks to the most unique moments of a life.  Plotwise all you need to know going in is stated in the title: a family man visits with the ghosts that haunt his prior incarnations, coupled with cryptic scenes that take us forward and backward in time.  We see a twenty-something princess escorted into the forest, branch out on her own to a waterfall, go for a swim, then opt in for some casual sex with a catfish.  Was Uncle Boonmee this catfish?  Questions unanswered, homey: questions un-answered.

Yet surreal moments like this and the film’s recurring encounters with Predator looking ape creatures with glowing red eyes are never played for shock value: we come to believe that these are fathomable in Boonmee’s world.  It is a strange and not wholly knowable journey towards death, Weerasethakul argues.  Yet even in a realm wherein the weirdest of rebirths is possible, we are treated not merely to a story about trying to live forever, but about our collective life-long (or in this case, lives-long) pursuit of peace and grace.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has been held over at Film Forum: at press time its premiere New York run ends there this Tuesday, March 29th.