This year's Palme D'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival—Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life—bears much in common with last year's winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Boonmee, a Thai film which opened in the US just a couple of months earlier than The Tree of Life, likewise investigates, in a unique and uniquely cinematic manner, the interconnectedness of all things, memory, the meaning of life and death, and the shape of existence. A merging of the universally relevant and the deeply personal, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives fits neatly into Weerasethakul's cinema-shaking oeuvre of beautiful experimentation.
The loose plot derives from a book, authored by a Buddhist abbot, called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Old man Boonmee (Thnapat Saisaymar) has relocated to a country house on a farm to convalesce with his kidney disease. On his first night there, sitting around a table with sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), Uncle Boonmee experiences a shock. Appearing out of thin air is his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk); soon therafter, Boonmee's long-missing son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong)—now a Monkey Ghost with glowing red eyes and head-to-toe fur— ascends the stairs. Talk about your awkward family reunions. Huay lingers, assuming some responsibility for Boonmee's care, and as he gingerly makes his way toward death, the reason for the spirits' presence becomes clearer and the film drifts, with Boonmee's consciousness, into reveries of past lives and future descendants. One involves a princess who encounters a shaman in the form of a talking (and sexually charged) catfish; another supposes a future (one that looks an awful lot like the present) in which Boonmee's son will suffer at the hands of soldiers.
Thailand's ideological struggles inform what Weerasethakul is after, in remembering a painful past (“I’ve killed too many Communists," Boonmee says, ruefully contemplating his karma), negotiating a tentative present, and dreading possible futures, but Boonmee is only glancingly political (both an artistic choice and a necessity, given the filmmaker's understanding of the state's watchdog attitude toward "'inappropriate' activities"). Weerasethakul is more interested in using his cinematic consciousness to ponder our metaphysical journey of life and our neglected relationships with flora and fauna. Given the past lives consideration, the film has a heightened awareness of life, from the escaping ox of the film's opening movement to the insects and worms that share the farm with Boonmee (at one point the victims of a bug zapper) to the Monkey Ghost and randy catfish. Weerasethakul is often called a "generous" filmmaker, an "open" one, and indeed though the film is about the sweet mystery of life, he offers answers for the plucking. One could exclude all else and seize, for example, on Jen's appraisal of the honey she samples with Boonmee: "This is heaven." Sweet mystery of life, indeed.
Those seeking more with their guide can follow him through Boonmee's experience of death, made comfortable by the character's own spirit guides, living and dead, and depicted with typical graceful patience by the filmmaker. The inevitable incorporates a literal journey into darkness climaxing in Boonmee being unable to tell if his eyes are open or closed: no filmmaker is dreamier, at the moment, than Weerasethakul. As shot in Super16, Boonmee is another magical mystery tour for the filmmaker, composed with care (no accident that two of the characters are proud photographers) and a yen to capture, in visual poetry, moments of truth. The fables of emphemerality that make up Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives don't claim to be any kind of be all or end all, but rather an invitation to serene contemplation of what life—and cinema—can do for us, all the more so if we live in harmony with our surroundings.
Given its Super16 source, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives shouldn't be expected to leap off the screen with depth, even in hi-def. Still, the picture quality here is quite good and superior to the recent UK release. Where the UK disc is 1080i, Strand's disc is 1080p. the burned-in subtitles are a sign that perhaps this transfer isn't all it could be, and indeed the image suffers at times from compression issues, including a bit of dreaded macroblocking. Audio is lossy Dolby Digital 5.1, which does an okay job of serving Weerasethakul's aural immersion; it's a mix that's clear but lacking in the dynamism one might expect or at least hope for.
Compensating for any A/V disappointments is a stong supplementary package, featuring the companion-piece short film "A Letter To Uncle Boonmee" in HD (17:46, HD).
Also invaluable is the "Interview With Apichatpong Weerasethakul" (16:47, HD). Weerasethakul admits he's saying more than he should here as he noodles around the picture's meaning, his inspirations, and his cinematic philosophy.
Seven "Deleted Scenes" (23:59, HD) are another surprise bonus for Weerasethakul fans. Rounding out the disc are the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (1:40, HD), and 3 Other Weerasethakul Trailers (for Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, and Blissfully Yours).
This off-the-beaten-path selection will be catnip for cineastes who haven't been able to find this film at their local theaters.
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