After being screened at the recent London Film Festival, a colleague who had watched the film warned me to anticipate the unexpected and his advice certainly rung true. An eclectic film that demands incredible patience on behalf of the viewer, Uncle Boonmee…is, by and large, a tremendous success in spite of its intentionally abstruse narrative structuring and hypnotic visual metaphors which might stretch some audience members’ desire to persist with such a soporific cinematic offering.
Secluded in a remote North Eastern enclave of the Thai jungle, Uncle Boonmee is living out the rest of his days undergoing dialysis treatment, lovingly cared for by Jaai, a Lao immigrant, his sister-in-law Jen and her son Tong. Despite Jen’s immediate dismissal of Jaai on the basis of his origins (“The Lao are smelly”), harmony does prevail as Boonmee’s fate edges ever nearer, the draining of his colostomy bag an apposite metaphor for life’s ebbing away.
One night as the family eat dinner, the spirits of Boonmee’s wife (portrayed as a translucent apparition) and son (a red-eyed Chewbacca figure) appear to discuss the afterlife and the nature of reincarnation. Rather than jump in fright at their arrival, the family receive their departed loved ones with ecstatic glee, overwhelmed by joy to see them again. Despite their shared pleasure at being reunited, a melancholia underpins the scene as Boonmee begins to consider what form his soul will take once he dies.
Indeed, the nocturnal jungle is full of all manner of spirits, including an ancient Thai princess who, after an encounter with her younger self, seen reflected in basin of a waterfall, proceeds to be pleasured by a catfish highly skilled in cunnilingus. Whilst it’s both autonomous to the central narrative and simultaneously thematically tied to the rest of Boonmee’s meditations, not to mention its beautiful composition, it cannot escape the feeling of an artist unbound, allowed to wallow in his own religious and intellectual preoccupations at the expense of the viewer’s engagement.
Uncle Boonmee Recalls His Past Lives is a dense and immensely ambitious project that tackles Thai politics stretching back over several decades, reincarnation, the fear (or enlightened acceptance) of approaching death and the enabling power of familial love and devotion. It is a shame, therefore, that its over-indulgence suffocates what could have been an incredible film.