Tuesday, 12 October 2010

'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' review: Great Expectations?

The other day somebody from Sony was telling me how concerned they were that ‘The Social Network’ might be negatively affected by all the positive reviews: the idea being that they could generate a backlash against it. I can understand that concern because, however much I try to black out reviews and awards from my mind, it can be hard to view a film in a culture vacuum. For example, if you go and see a film that has won Best Picture at the Oscars, no matter how good it is, you might easily find yourself saying “yes, it was good. But it wasn't a Best Picture winner was it?”

I had such an experience last week as I saw Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ playing at the 4th Kaunas International Film Festival in Lithuania. Having won the coveted Palm d’Or at this year’s (by many accounts subpar) Cannes Film Festival, I went into ‘Uncle Boonmee’ with dangerously high expectations. To me, post-Cannes, it was no longer a little Thai film from an interesting and experimental director. Instead it was inevitably now stacked up alongside the awards past recipients: “Is it as good as ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ or ‘The White Ribbon’?”

Of course, this is not at all fair. The award itself has nothing to do with the film, and this disperate band of unconnected past winners is even less relevant. A film should really be judged on its own merits. Perhaps this is true: but is it ever realistic? Or even possible?

Most critics will routinely compare a new work alongside others of the same genre or with other films made by the same director. Is this bad practice? I wonder how different the reception to some films might have been had the critics not known anything about the author going in. Would the 'Star Wars' prequels be so universally hated if people compared them to the bland likes of ‘Clash of the Titans’ or ‘Transformers’ as opposed to the original trilogy? And the opposite is likely true also: I can’t imagine ‘Inland Empire’, divorced from the legacy and reputation of David Lynch, would be endured by as many fawning acolytes.

So it was that I watched the Palm d’Or-winning ‘Uncle Boonmee’ expecting great things. 'Uncle Boonmee' follows the titular character as he looks back on his life whilst suffering from a terminal illness. He is visited by the ghost of a previous wife and by his son who has become an ape, whilst he also relives some past lives: most notably during a bizarre protracted sequence in which an deformed princess has sex with a catfish. The film is nothing if not unique.

I am usually a big fan of the so-called "slow cinema" movement. Recent examples like the Romanian 'Police, Adjective' and the Russian Golden Lion entry 'Ovsyanki' have thrilled me greatly. But 'Boonmee' did actually start to bore me with its long, ponderous takes and silent scenes of relative inactivity. And, in part due to its acclaim, I found myself trying to find reasons why it wasn't working for me. Perhaps I don't know enough about Buddhism and reincarnation? Perhaps I'm experiencing slow cinema fatigue after recent trips to film festivals?

Whatever it was, I didn't connect with 'Uncle Boonmee' on an emotional level and wasn't gripped by the folkloric story. It is unquestionably a bold and imaginative film, with the glowing red eyes of the mysterious monkey gods that stalk the jungle a particular visual highpoint. Weerasethakul is also a master of atmosphere, especially in terms of sound design. Earlier this year I saw one of his short art installation films, 'Phantoms of Nabua' (see bottom of review), playing at the BFI Southbank and it has clear parallels with 'Boonmee' in terms of the sharp nighttime cinematography and also in the way that it uses natural sounds which give you a real sense of being in the middle of a real space. Watching both this and 'Boonmee' I felt as though I was in the jungle at times.

It is also true that 'Boonmee' is often laugh-out-loud funny. One photomontage, midway through the film, shows a man in a monkey suits hugging some military men, whilst in another scene Boonmee describes how he killed communists in his time as a soldier commenting that they were a "pain in the ass". Yet these moments only served to raise my enjoyment levels fleetingly during the film's near two hour running length.

Whilst the Palm d'Or win will inevitably lead to wider distribution than the film could otherwise have hoped for, I don't think 'Uncle Boonmee' has the same potential with audiences as last year's Cannes big hitters did (namely 'Un Prophet' and 'The White Ribbon'). It is certainly an imaginative film which is beautiful to watch, yet ultimately, whether or not high expectations or festival film fatigue were to blame, 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' just didn't do it for me on a visceral, gut level. Would I have felt differently had I seen it at that first show in Cannes when it was still an obscure oddity? It's possible, but I suppose I'll never know for sure.

Below is the art installation short 'Phantoms of Nabua'. 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' is released in the UK on the 19th of November and is not yet rated by the BBFC.

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