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Gordon S. Miller Written by Gordon S. Miller
Aug. 4, 2011 | 5:22 PM
DVD of the Week

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Blu-ray Review)

Written by Steve Geise

I like to think I keep a fairly open mind when approaching fringe films, but this one has me flummoxed. From its unimaginatively translated title to its inscrutable and glacially paced content, the film completely failed to enlighten or entertain me. The biggest mystery to me is how it managed to win the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious award of the festival, but I’m too lazy to check what other films were in contention so it may have actually been the best candidate.

Uncle Boonmee is dying due to a long battle with kidney disease, but he’s at peace with his fate and is quietly living out his final days surrounded by those closest to him. As his death nears, the bedside crowd grows to increase his deceased wife and his long-missing son who has turned into a red-eyed, completely fur-covered monkey man, appearances that provoke nonchalant reactions from Boonmee and the others as if they’re used to ghosts and furry spirit monkeys popping in for dinner at any time. They don’t really have any meaningful conversation, although the son recounts the tale of his disappearance when he was tracking monkey ghosts in the jungle on a photo expedition and eventually fell in love with one and turned into one. Um, ok then.

Later, the film jumps to a seemingly unrelated scene of a disfigured woman bemoaning her appearance in a river before being chatted up and ravished by a catfish. Yes, you read that right. Then we’re treated to Boonmee’s death in a cave and his funeral service, plodding scenes that only led me to wonder why Thais decorate coffins with Christmas lights during the ceremony. Finally, the film lurches to a close with another unrelated scene of a monk coming to Boonmee’s friend Jen’s hotel room, where she’s watching tv with another girl and where he proceeds to take a shower and change into street clothes before leaving the room with them and noticing that his doppelganger is still there along with a double of Jen. Fade to black. No explanation, no payoff, just have a nice day. Why even include this scene after the titular star of the film has died? Are the disfigured woman and the monk another couple of Boonmee’s past lives? Not likely, since the monk appears to Jen in the same timeline as Boonmee’s life, making even the title of the film misleading and off-putting. The film is wide open to viewer interpretation and imagination, as openly admitted to by the director, so if you have any better ideas feel free to share them in our comments.

The actors are so naturalistic that they could have been any non-professionals pulled off the street, with little to no affect in their voices or expressions. The actors portraying Boonmee and his deceased wife Huay are actually amateurs, while the pros are little better. That makes the dull proceedings even more excruciatingly slow, as we’re treated to ordinary people doing ordinary things only punctuated by the whiplash switches to the next unrelated scene. Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul apparently intended to share some of his Thai culture, customs, and beliefs with viewers, but failed to give the uninitiated even a toehold of a primer on those topics to foster any greater understanding. The best one can hope for is to try to extract some comprehension out of an individual scene, but with its extremely leisurely pace even that quest is fraught with peril.

The film’s cinematography and audio separation aren’t particularly high quality, so there’s little reason to choose the upgraded Blu-ray release over DVD. Even on Blu the image is grainy and washed out, resulting in quality no greater than DVD. As for bonus features, there’s a short film by Weerasethakul that apparently predated Boonmee and shares its same confusing structure and subject, along with an interview with Weerasethakul where he talks (in perfect English) about his cultural inspirations and the various acts of the film, and yet even that interview failed to improve my understanding of his work. In the end, I was left feeling that the entire project was pretentious art drivel, even though I can usually appreciate some drivel, but in this case Weerasethakul’s efforts came across as unfocused and boring. Proceed at your own risk.

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