The full title of this film from Thailand is "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", which is quite a mouthful, although not as much of a tonguetwister as the name of its director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He is highly regarded among so called film cognoscenti, but I can not quite understand this adoration. While most of his previous output were shorts, I have seen two of his earlier movies ,"Tropical Malady" (2004) and "Syndromes and a Century" (2006). Both of these were glowingly reviewed, but left me scratching my head at their pretentiousness.
The film opens with a quote: "Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise before me". This may sound a promising premise given the film's title, but the protagonist of this movie, a critically ill middle-aged man, seems preoccupied with the events of his present, haunted by memories from his own lifetime. It is something of a stretch to believe that he thinks he was once the water buffalo that opens the movie in an interminable rummage through the jungle or the disfigured princess of the middle section whom we observe being pleasured by a catfish! He lives on a tamarind plantation upcountry and his sister and her cook arrive from Bangkok to visit her dying brother. Other visitors to the household include the fairly solid ghost of his wife who died nineteen years earlier and his son who disappeared four years after her death and who is now a hairy 'monkey-ghost', having mated with a female of the species and gone to live in the jungle with her and her kind, visible only by their glowing red eyes.
While this may sound like a wonderful example of 'magic realism' the film does seem to plod along before he and his entourage trek to a remote cave where he claims to have been born and where he dies. We observe the routines of his medical treatment, including draining his kidneys, and his daily round amongst the workers on his plantation. He claims to be full of regrets for the many 'communists' he killed as a young soldier and for the many insects he has had to kill since to keep his spread viable. One could read all sorts of symbols and echoes of Thai history into the director's carefully composed tableaux without having any real idea of what he intended. On the positive side some of these scenes are beautifully put together and photographed, but are held for such a long time that I felt like shouting 'get on with it' -- you could call this 'the Bela Tarr effect', if you are familiar with that director's static films.
The ending of the film back in Bangkok after the funeral seems totally unrelated to what has transpired earlier as the sister, an unidentified young female, and one of the brother's helpers -- now a shaven-headed monk -- watch television. The monk then asks to shower, changes into 'with-it' gear, and he and the sister go out for a meal at a karaoke bar -- or maybe they don't, since the last shot shows the pair still lying on the bed entranced by their television viewing. This movie premiered at Cannes and the showing was marked by numerous walk-outs and general puzzlement, yet it was the surprise winner of the Palme d'or. The film would seem to be one of those that is great at dividing its audience, even those not looking for only populist entertainments.
The movie was apparently 'inspired' by a book by one Phra Sripariyattiweti (another mouthful) of whom I know absolutely nothing. I must confess that I was really hoping to love this film, to be captured by its rumoured magic and mysticism; however I would appear to be something of a philistine, dumbfounded when confronted by its slow-moving, inpenetrable scenario. I love movies, but will never be the Susan Sontag of film criticism. Somehow I feel that my heroine, the late Pauline Kael, would also not have succumbed to the film's inflated reputation.