Here’s the best example of a cinematic marmite for the ages – an oddly surreal, often jarring yet ethereal meditation of life, death and nature that triumphantly, if not surprisingly, bagged last year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival. Despite the unequivocal support of Tim Burton, the Jury President, this was met with raised eyebrows and gruff rebuff from a lot of cantankerous critics. And it’s easy to see why – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives numbs more buttocks and scratches more heads than giving some crystal clear enlightenment of Thai mysticism, opting for a looser, ruminative narrative over concise, taut storytelling. If there’s anything this film achieves or makes clear about, it perfectly delineates the great, sharp divide between Western and Eastern audiences, testing the viewing expectations and patience of a Hollywoodised world.
Indeed, there’s no denying the calming and soothing framing devices of Weerasethakul, all long takes and long shots which barely gets up close to its characters and minimalist editing, allowing its Zen-like ambiance to fully envelope your senses as if we’re having a Thai massage. It tells a rather short tale of a dying tamarind farmer who succumbed to his own forthcoming demise and recalls his past lives, his incarnations in touch with his Buddhist belief. Yet it’s not a religious film, and neither a political one (even the film demonstrates a clip of photographs of a local political turmoil caused by the Thai government). It merely suggests that death is inherent to our natural world, as if that hasn’t been preached in cinema before. However, there is a quiet poignancy in Uncle Boonmee’s stoic acceptance of his slow death, patching up past family conflicts, with his dead wife and his prodigal-son-turned-red-eyed-monkey both appearing during a dinner, a sequence handled with such gentility that it barely tumbles down into horror or farce. That in itself is remarkable enough to justify that this film tries to say significant things about the ways of life and death, showing us a cultural milieu where the doors between the spiritual world and our corporeal worlds are left wide open. It’s a bewitching idea but never enthralling. After all, when you get past the absurd sequence of a princess enjoying an orgasm with a catfish and the ending’s even more bizarre out-of-body soul migration, we are left more befuddled rather than moved.
Possibly the most bizarre, mind-numbingly opaque Palme D’Or winner in recent memory that invests more in creating mood, Zen-like atmosphere and spiritual rhetoric rather than compelling cinematic experience. It’s seductively hypnotic and soothing like a Thai massage, but one that doesn’t leave a lasting impression.