Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
As straightforward as its name might be, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winning film is anything but. It tells of an Uncle Boonmee whose deteriorating kidney disease marks an approaching death. The film fuses the natural and supernatural in a strangely mystical portrayal of the Thai countryside. Such strangeness is first and foremost delivered through the deliberately dawdling camera. The primarily static camera is a passive observer, only witnessing what happens in the frame and nothing else. The most it does is track characters as they enter and exit the frame and even then it would hold its breath and linger on an empty frame for several seconds before finally exhaling and moving to another scene. This languid style may captivate some while boring others but it surely haunts all. In many scenes, the camera is positioned far away from the characters who are usually in the mid ground, if not background, of the shot. Without exerting any effort, the camera waits patiently as the characters slowly walk towards it and into the foreground. After several shots of this same staging, the audience is acclimated with the pace but still feels apprehensive about the strange stillness and approaching characters who seem to be coming for them. Nonetheless, this technique embeds many of the film’s shots with a beautiful depth.
With no camera movement, one expects the movement within the frame to busy our eyes but even that is denied us. There is little significant movement in the shots, and walking characters aside, it’s only nature that fills the frame with tender movement. The gentle breeze tickling the curtains and the trees, the rushing waterfalls, a swarm of bees. Later when a princess and a catfish have sex, the film’s themes of man and nature saturate the screen and we no longer feel uncomfortable or uninterested. It is this sensual sequence that I find most interesting in the whole film. It includes the film’s only four point-of-view shots and a rare instance of camera movement when the princess meets up with the servant she’s involved with. But it’s not only the camera work that makes this sequence special; the sound of the waterfall scene is quite marvellous compared to the film’s overriding soundtrack of crickets screeching. The rush of the waterfall is complemented with barely audible soft gasps produced by the princess as she floats on her back while a catfish pleasures her between the legs. Definitely an eerie picture to paint but the camera then films the bottom of the lake where the princess’ jewelry settle after she offers it to the catfish in hopes of gaining youthful beauty. The princess’ story is reminiscent of the tale of Narcissus as both are lured by their gorgeous reflections into the water.
The second instance of camera movement occurs much later when the ghost of Boonmee’s wife leads him into a dark, glittering cave shortly before his imminent death. However, if I had to choose a single favorite shot, it would certainly be the one permeated with light shades of pink, purple, and blue as Jen sleeps peacefully behind fragile nets of color. Juxtaposed with all the other much darker shots in the film mostly dominated by greens, this shot makes us believe in a secret magic beneath the act of sleep.
With realistic dialogue and authentic performances but spiritual moments and supernatural motifs as well, Boonmee looks as natural as neorealism but elevates the audience out of reality and into a higher realm where only their trust and intuition can enable them to wander along Uncle Boonmee into the cave of what lies beyond. Weerasethakul’s vision of ghosts, non-human people, and parallel universes promises more than just perplexing, prolonged shots of stillness – towards the end of the film, a dream sequence is composed of still photographs with Uncle Boonmee’s voiceover – and baffling cuts; it opens our minds to a truly tantalizing environment and even though we may not understand all of it, the film succeeds to make us think and wonder.