Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Boonmee is a tamarind farmer in rural Thailand. He is dying of a disease of his remaining kidney. His sister in law has joined him for company for what might be his last days. He has a male nurse to see to his medical needs and a probably illegal Laotian personal servant. Were it not for the closeness of death life in this balmy, insect chorusing agrarian idyll would be perfect.

But death is not such a conversation killer here. Boonmee is deeply Buddhist and thinks of himself less as dying than about to leave his present body.

Talk at the dinner table is about the future, life after Boonmee and it's practical, unsentimental. So matter of fact, in fact, that we hardly notice the ghost of his wife slowly materialising on one of the chairs at the table. I thought she was a reflection until she was unignorably there which is very similar to the reaction of the other characters. Once established, though, they variously take it in their stride or witness it as their worry slowly gives way to acceptance. They then converse as though she's just dropped in for a visit.

Not enough? Footfalls on the stairwell makes everyone's head turn to see the laser-eyed apelike creature from the opening sequence walking up the stairs. It pauses at the sight of all the attention its appearence has engendered but then enters the room and identifies itself as Boonmee's son, missing for decades. He'd become obsessed with a photograph of a strange simian figure, took up photography himself in order to capture another one on film in the forest, and then mated with one and joined them, even taking on their physical appearance. Boonmee's servant enters and is incredulous and fearful until assuaged by Boonmee and the others that it's just a member of the family. Boonmees's sister in law asks the ape why he let his hair grow so long.

Do you see the problem I'm having? I've just spent paragraphs describing events on screen rather than just summing up the plot the film and going on to tell you what I thought of it. Uncle Boonmee resists such treatment. You know what else does? Solaris, Eraserhead, El Topo, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. What? Are you comparing this 16 mm movie to those classics? Yes, and I don't care if they're classics, they all stand outside of conventional narrative cinema and all carry themes or ideas that compel their existence and override observance of the convention. So does Boonmee.

So why don't I just pack it in and cry pretentious? Well, for the very reason that I don't understand it and that I care that I don't understand. Pretension is unfulfilled promise and I cannot say if this film fulfils its promise or fails it. I don't know what this film's promise is.

I do know that it has been made with precision and what appears for all the world to be love.

I know, as well, that for all the otherworldliness of this film there isn't a syllable of dialogue that isn't straighforward and suitable to its context (even when it occurs between a talking catfish and a disfigured princess). I do know that the fact that little or nothing of Boonmee's past lives appear on screen does not let the title down, as some commentators have claimed (it just says he can, it doesn't say he does ;) although how else to explain the scene with the princess from what looks like a medieval period?). I know, too, that for all its sudden bizarreness there is nothing that is intended to be adorably cute or quirky. This film leaves questions and mysteries that are questions and mysteries not the frays of lazy writing. This film is nothing if not intentionally made. I know that anyone who sticks so stubbornly to 16 mm to make his feature films (the sole detail in this review that I outsourced) and makes it look so beautiful deserves accolades for cheek as well as achievement.

I know, also, that this film, unlike most of the films I've ever seen, delivers on at least one promise to perfection. The first thing we see is a bullock in silhouette. The camera is motionless, taking in the slight movements of the animal, savouring the beauty of the curve of its head and horns against the light. It's restless and tugs itself free of the rope binding it to a tree, wandering into the forest nearby, strolling through the new terrain, looking around and emitting odd little glottal chirps as if to say: hmm, what's this? It stops deep in the forest, the camera again lingering studiously on its clean dark beauty. A farm worker with a sickle arrives and gently coaxes it back through the forest. Then we see that all this has been observed. A tall dark figure in the forest turns to reveal itself as a kind of lithe yeti with a pair of glowing red eyes, staring with a human fascination at what it is seeing. Title sequence.

We've been promised a ride both rich and strange. We get it.

Screens at ACMI  until March 14. Please go and see it.

SHADOWS starts up at ABC again this Friday. Here's the program with trailer and flier.

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