Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Format: Cinema

Release date:19 November 2010

Venues: key cities

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Original title: Loong Boonmee raleuk chat

Cast: Sakda Kaewbuadee, Jenjira Pongpas, Thanapat Saisaymar

Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands 2010

114 mins

To call a film ‘magical’ or ‘enchanting’ often brands it as exotic whimsy or childish fantasy. But Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s seventh feature requires that we use those adjectives more literally: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is powered by an animist magic that is genuinely mysterious, the more so for being woven into a narrative of everyday life and death.

Read the interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Boonmee, played with quiet melancholy by non-professional Thanapat Saisaymar, is dying of kidney failure, and haunted by the lives he thinks he might have lived in the past. As the film begins, he is visited by a sister-in-law, Jen, and young nephew, Tong, at his remote farm in north-eastern Thailand, a region where Weerasethakul has concentrated much of his filmmaking. Boonmee is aware of his failing health, yet still active - or stubborn - enough to supervise the farm workers, setting up his dialysis equipment in a tamarind grove, and to spend time with his visiting relatives. The relationships between Boonmee, Jen and Tong are subtly drawn, as is the dynamic between Boonmee and Jaai, the Lao worker who acts as his nurse, and these interactions, set against the rhythms of domesticity and work, and the separate but interlinked live/work patterns of bees, buffalo and omnipresent insects, are in themselves highly involving.

But Uncle Boonmee is more than an elegiac rural drama. It is also a ghost story, a fable and a meditation on memory and place. Tone and style vary, mirroring the shifts between real and supernatural that come to feel logical. The naturalistic scenes of Boonmee and his family start to include the ghost of his wife, Huay, who fades in and out of the picture with eerie calm. Boonmee’s son, Boonsong, now a ‘monkey ghost’ in a gorilla suit with red, flashing eyes, also arrives at dinner and tells the story of his transmigration from human to simian. The main narrative is interrupted by a mythical tale that seems taken from another film altogether, about a princess, a slave and a talking, amorous catfish; its fairy tale atmosphere is derailed by a brilliantly odd interspecies sex scene. Finally, Boonmee’s death takes place in an extraordinary, almost psychedelic sequence whereby he and his family trek through a mountain cave heavy with stalactites in which, he explains, he senses he was born into his first life.

As in his Tropical Malady (2004), Weerasethakul brings plants and animals to vivid life, his skilful observation of nature an important counterpart to Uncle Boonmee‘s more esoteric elements. In an early scene, the family sit outside at a dinner table lit by one small lamp, the presence of the jungle crowding in on them. In the cave where Boonmee dies, glow-worms hang from the walls and tiny fish swarm in the pools, coexistent but alien, the natural proliferation of life-forms resonating with the theme of multiple lifetimes. The military history of the region - occupied for two decades by the Thai army, who carried out frequent attacks against suspected communists - is part of the unquiet, haunted backdrop, too: in one recollection of a very real past life, Boonmee mentions his own spell in the army, and the ‘commies’ he killed.

Weerasethakul’s deep connection with the locality of Uncle Boonmee results from his long-term Primitive project, which includes the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) and Phantoms of Nabua (2009) and has closely involved local people. Does this longer film serve not only as the final work in the sequence, but also as a resolution to the previous films’ exploration of the post-conflict trauma of a place and its people? Its gentle atmosphere suggests so, yet a downbeat coda, in which we see Boonmee’s funeral - in a temple twinkling with neon shrines - followed by Tong (now a Buddhist monk) and Jen in a hotel and karaoke bar, is interestingly devoid of comfort. Tong’s religious vocation appears somewhat casual, and away from the peaceful countryside Jen, who is physically disabled, seems isolated and vulnerable. It is as if Weerasethakul, having interrogated so thoroughly the memories and energy of Nabua and its surroundings, needs to remind us that we can be as easily haunted or displaced in an anonymous town as in the wilderness. Into this setting he introduces one last reincarnatory twist that, to some, will seem needlessly self-referential. For me, Weerasethakul’s stepping back from his own film in its last minutes only serves to reinforce the surety of his vision and the magic of what has gone before.

To find out more about the Primitive project, go to the Animate website.

Frances Morgan

Dream Home

Dream Home

Format: Cinema

Release date:19 November 2010

Venues: Cineworld Shaftsbury Avenue, Showcase Newham, Vue Shepherds Bush (London) and key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung

Writers: Pang Ho-Cheung, Tsang Kwok Cheung, Wan Chi-Man

Original title: War dor lei ah yut ho

Cast: Josie Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eason Chan, Michelle Ye

Hong Kong 2010

96 mins

A young woman takes the problem of Hong Kong’s corrupt property developers and sky-rocketing rents into her own hands in this vicious black comedy.

In a series of rather mawkish flashbacks seen through the eyes of a child, the working-class, long-time residents of Hong Kong’s harbour-side apartment blocks are driven out of their homes by triad gangs working on behalf of ruthless developers after the 1997 handover. Twenty years later, these same locations are now far out of the reach of ordinary Hong Kongers and instead house adulterous, golf-playing yuppies, nihilistic, hedonistic teenagers and other caricatures of modern, moneyed China.

Enter Cheng Lai-sheung (played by rising megastar Josie Ho), a hard-working former inhabitant of a harbour-side block, who dreams of looking out over the same view that she grew up with. To live her dream, she becomes as cold-blooded as the water snake placed through her best friend’s door when she was a child, hacking and slashing her way through the new block’s inhabitants until the asking price on her future home finally takes a tumble.

It’s an engaging premise and in a manner that should be familiar to anyone well-versed in contemporary Hong Kong or South Korean genre cinema, Dream Home lurches from moments of blood-curdling tweeness to some outrageously gory and sadistic set-pieces that steer the film and Josie Ho’s character into the deeper waters of refreshing moral ambiguity - or is that total insanity?

Whether Dream Home is a slasher film with a strong vein of socio-economic commentary running through its core, or a political satire with a slasher film trying to hack its way out from the inside is ultimately hard to decide. I’d also wonder if there are deeper levels of Hong Kong references and in-jokes that will be lost on Western audiences. Even without such inside knowledge, however, this is an undeniably enjoyable, if at times emotionally unstable, film, which reminds us that however imbalanced the housing situation over here, it can always be a lot worse.

Don’t be surprised to see a heavily toned-down US remake, perhaps starring Kristen Stewart, looming, like a shiny new Hong Kong skyscraper, just over the horizon.

Mark Pilkington

Watch a clip from Dream Home:



Format: DVD

Release date: 11 October 2010

Distributor: Second Run

Screening on: 26 November 2010

Venue: Riverside Studios, London

Part of the 14th Czech Film Festival

Director: Juraj Herz

Writers: Vladimír Bor, Alexander Grin, Juraj Herz

Cast: Iva Janzurová, Josef Abrhám, Nina Divísková, Petr Cepek

Czechoslovakia 1972

99 mins

Juraj Herz, director of the acclaimed and creepy The Cremator, wants us to look upon Morgiana (1972) as a stylistic exercise. And certainly the aspect of the film that first hits is the disturbing, crazy-house visuals, a combination of fisheye lurch and decadent, Klimt-inspired design, with psychedelic colour experiments and shots taken from the point of view of a Siamese cat. Add in the sinister, seductive score and the extreme, silent-movie theatrics of lead actress Iva Janzurová, and the stylistic richness of the film might tend to overwhelm any content.

In fact, that content was surgically removed at the demand of the Czech censors who, in the years following the Prague Spring, were particularly sensitive. The film as it stands documents, or dreams, the melodramatic and murderous battle between two sisters (both played by Janzurová, normally a comedy actress), but Herz’s original plan, derived from the source novel by Alexander Grin, was to reveal halfway through the film that only one sister exists. A case of multiple personality disorder was apparently too disturbing for the state to accept, so the plot twist was deleted before filming was allowed. (MPD has been diagnosed almost exclusively in America, so perhaps the communist state could not accept the implication of it crossing the iron curtain?)

From Herz’s point of view, this undercut the whole point of the film, but he was forced to proceed anyway. He entertained himself by coming up with crazy visual ideas, although with the doubling of the main actress the shoot was already arduous enough. Should I have told you this? Does knowing that its author believes it to be senseless prejudice you against investigating the film’s meaning? I don’t think it should: the film pretty openly declares itself a piece of fin-de-siècle pop-art extravagance from the off. The warring sisters theme often invites comparisons with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), although The Dark Mirror (1946) and A Stolen Life (1946) more directly anticipate the use of one actress in two roles. Whatever the Western influence might be, melodrama is the keynote of Iva Iva Janzurová’s performances, Herz’s approach and the operatic tone set for the whole movie.

If the film’s intended meaning was killed by censorship, so that only the casting hints at Herz’s duality theme, can we divine our own meanings from the kaleidoscopic whirl of images? I think perhaps we can, but they are always going to be provisional and incomplete. Rather than risk encoding any subversive message into this work, the filmmaker has satisfied himself with an echoing void, surrounded by beautiful colours and striking scenes. Whatever we yell into this chasm will echo back to us, distorted and fragmented, and that will have to be our meaning.

Morgiana will be screened at Riverside Studios, London, on 26 November 2010 together with The Cremator in a Juraj Herz double bill as part of the 14th Czech Film Festival.

David Cairns

We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are

Format: Cinema

Release date:12 November 2010

Venues: Curzon Soho, Odeon Covent Garden, Screen on the Green, Vue Islington (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Jorge Michel Grau

Writer: Jorge Michel Grau

Original title: Somos lo que hay

Cast: Adrián Aguirre, Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Carmen Beato

Mexico 2010

90 mins

When a middle-aged man drops dead in a shopping mall in urban Mexico, black blood exuding from his mouth, he leaves a terrible legacy. He has been the sole hunter for his wife and children who, like him, are cannibals. Jostling for position, they clumsily embark on the hunting for themselves. As we follow their exploits, Jorge Michel Grau’s debut feature is pulled in several directions; unearthly characters create subtle tensions that are cut through by caricatured cops and avenging prostitutes, Guillermo del Toro rubbing shoulders with Pedro Almodóvar. Some of the hunt scenes jolt along to a jazz soundtrack creating a West Side Story-ish fragmented hysteria, done so well in, say, Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris. Grau stitches together a Frankenstein’s monster of styles.

The family home is an artful, Gothic offering with dingy lighting and clutter that points to an obsession with time and repetition: a tin of strange ribbons incessantly counted by mother and hundreds of ticking clocks left by the departed horologist father. The uncanny continues with a soundscape that is full of intricacies that merge the everyday with the grotesque, such as the exaggerated sound of Mum’s (Carmen Beato) shoes clomping begrudgingly and curtly up the staircase. She is the one in the end who batters the human prey with matter-of-fact precision, and her deadpan performance evokes black comedy to add to the plethora of Grau’s styles.

The actual ‘rito’, the ritual dismembering, takes place on the family dining table surrounded by candlelit plastic crime-scene sheets: mother and daughter carve. The family are trapped in the cycle of performing these killings but it’s unclear whether this is fuelled by psychotic delusion or by a supernatural curse, where they will physically perish if they don’t eat human flesh. Their cult logic resurrects the Aztec obsession with carrying out protective sacrifice on a mass scale in order to ensure prosperity, and so Grau brings anxiety about literally putting ‘meat on the table’ into the here and now. Indeed the sacrificial victims are duped and lured in sites of poverty, trade and expenditure all elegantly picked out with lush cinematography and shallow depth of field; a traders market, a kerb-crawling zone, a flyover inhabited by vagrant children. The ‘dog eat dog world’ socio-economic metaphor here is heavy-handed.

Grau gets even more mileage out of the symbolic meaning of cannibalism as it also points to the psychic brutality families can inflict on each other. The exploration of these family dynamics is the strength of the film, take or leave the cannibalism. The father’s death is a catalyst for the eruption of drives that have been kept under wraps. As the family claim their victims their sexual orientations are revealed and these individual vignettes are sensitively played out, but teenage torment vies with the necessity of providing dinner for the family. The Bildungsroman elements of the film are the most moving and worthy of development and while the horror milieu is beautifully rendered, the social commentary comes with its own spoon.

Nicola Woodham

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide

Bloody Moon

Format: DVD

Date: 8 November 2010

Distributor: Nucleus Films

Director: Jake West

UK 2010

540 mins

Just when you thought that the days of film censorship had been finally laid to rest, along come A Serbian Film (2010) and the remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010) to prove the censors’ scissors have not rusted shut after all, with both films receiving significant cuts. The timing then could not be better for the release of Nucleus Films’ exhaustive three-disc documentary Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, which seeks to both explore the historical background that led to a parliamentary act determining what an adult British public can and can’t see, and showcase the 72 films that were prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions, 39 successfully, which were dubbed by the media as ‘video nasties’.

While film censorship is not a peculiarity to British shores, the ‘video nasties’ phenomenon certainly is - US and European film aficionados must look on with a mix of bemusement and shock. It’s a complex story and one that’s difficult to understand in today’s easy-access, multi-format environment, where a film can be downloaded and watched on your mobile phone in a matter of minutes.

But, in a nutshell, before 1984 films did not legally have to be certified on video and so a whole mass of bloody, lurid and usually pretty low-quality horror films made it onto video rental store shelves. Children being children, they wanted to watch these gory films as a status symbol. Religious fanatics, Tory MPs and The Daily Mail didn’t like this one bit so set about stopping everyone, not just children, from having access to them - rather brilliantly claiming that they had watched ‘I’m Going to Spit on Your Bloody Cannibal Brains next to the Cemetery Ferox’ and although it didn’t deprave and corrupt them it most certainly would anyone not as morally upstanding as them. Thirty-nine films were banned - thus giving horror fans a list of films that they must track down and illegally watch uncut.

The decision is as perplexing today as it was back then, particularly as most of the films are now available uncut on DVD: but as John Hayward, editor of video trade magazine Video Business at the time, eloquently states in the documentary featured on this release, it was as much about ‘control’ as it was about ‘content’.

Which brings us to the content that can be found on the three discs of this release. Disc 1 collects together the trailers for the 39 films prosecuted and banned, including the good (Bloody Moon, 1981), the bad (The Beast in Heat, 1977) and the plain repugnant (Fight for your Life, 1977). These can be watched as one long trailer reel or interspersed with roughly five minutes of talking heads as various experts (critics, academics, directors) discuss each film’s content and context.

Disc 2 is a similar affair but covers the rest of the films from the DPP’s original list, which were initially banned but subsequently acquitted. The 33 films covered on this disc include The Evil Dead (1981), Death Trap (1977) and The Toolbox Murders (1978).

The best of the goodies on disc 3 is the rather fantastic new documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, produced by Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris and directed by Jake West of Evil Aliens (2005) and Doghouse (2009) fame. While the trailers featured on discs 1 and 2 are certainly fascinating to watch as a revelrous homage to visceral gore, accompanied by prerequisite dirty phone-caller voice-over, it’s this new documentary that is the real highlight of the package.

It’s true that the world of the video nasty has been covered extensively elsewhere, but possibly never so effectively. Anyone familiar with the whole sordid history will recognise the archive news footage of ‘civil morality’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse on the warpath or Tory MP Sir Graham Bright (the minister responsible for introducing the Video Recordings Act) explaining that such abhorrent films not only corrupt children but dogs as well, but it is the new interview footage, especially with the likes of anti-censorship campaigner Martin Barker, critic Kim Newman and various horror directors who were influenced by these films (including Neil Marshall [The Descent, 2005] and Christopher Smith [Severance, 2006]), that makes the doc so compelling.

As a fan of horror and an opponent of film censorship, it’s hard not to watch the documentary and feel: a) outrage that you’ve been deeply cheated by an elitist ‘moral’ few and the hysterical rantings of the media; and b) shock that it went so far. The documentary finishes with a cautionary message about future censorship that all film fans, not just horror fans, would do well to heed.

Read the review of Possession, which was initially banned as a ‘video nasty’ and is now available on DVD in the UK for the first time.

Toby Weidmann



Format: Blu-ray

Date: 29 July 2013

Format: DVD

Date: 25 October 2010

Distributor: Second Sight

Director: Andrzej Żuławski

Writers: Andrzej Żuławski, Frederic Tuten

Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill

France, West Germany 1981

119 mins

Since its initial release 30 years ago, Andrzej Żulawski’s daring depiction of a marriage falling apart has been hailed as a masterpiece and dismissed as pretentious trash.

Since its initial release 30 years ago, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) has been hailed as a masterpiece and dismissed as pretentious trash. In the United States it was cut down from two hours to 80 minutes, turning an already confusing film into something incoherent, while in the UK it became arguably the most bizarre film to end up on the ‘video nasties’ list. It was removed the following year, but its presence on the list brought Possession to attention of a great many horror fans who mistakenly believed it was another gratuitous slice of Euro-splatter, with effects courtesy of Alien‘s Carlo Rambaldi. That assumption was probably dispelled by the time the lovely Isabelle Adjani - already known to horror fans for her roles in Werner Herzog’s exquisite Nosferatu remake and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) - started giving birth to a tentacled monster in a deserted subway tunnel. Shattered illusions aside, Possession did find some appreciation within the horror crowd - especially among lovers of David Cronenberg’s unique brand of ‘body-horror’ - although it remains difficult to assess in genre terms. It does include a monster, graphic gore and explicit sex scenes, but despite these elements the film remains a domestic drama at heart, albeit a twisted and somewhat disturbing one.

With their marriage reduced to a series of violent and bloody confrontations, Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) begin to look elsewhere for affection. Anna gives birth to a monstrosity that she then takes as her lover, guarding it from the attentions of her jealous husband. He in turn begins a relationship with their son’s teacher, who appears to be an exact duplicate of his wife. In effect, both seem to have created a ‘perfect’ replacement: Anna has a tender and affectionate lover that possesses no part of her husband, unlike her human child; Mark’s new lover has the body of his attractive wife but with an entirely different personality. During the writing and shooting of Possession, Żuławski was going through a difficult and acrimonious divorce, and it is clear that despite the fantasy trappings, much of the film was informed by the director’s recent experiences. Thoughts that would normally remain unspoken - the desire to kill or physically injure one’s former spouse, for example - are given a physical form and acted out by Adjani and Neill, both of whom seem to live solely for the opportunity to hurt each other, ignoring their child in the process. Anna’s monstrous offspring is the physical realisation of both her guilt and self-loathing, and her repressed sexual appetites, but neither the monster nor the doppelgänger are realistic partners. In the end, Żuławski can think of only one suitable conclusion to his tale: the destruction of the entire family. It’s a downbeat, pointless ending, but it really is the only appropriate one.

Jim Harper

Watch the official trailer for Possession (1981):

Tears for Sale

Tears for Sale

Format: DVD

Date: 20 September 2010

Distributor: Icon

Director: Uros Stojanovic

Writers: Batric Nenezic, Aleksandar Radivojevic, Uros Stojanovic

Original title: Carlston za Ognjenku

Cast: Katarina Radivojevic, Sonja Kolacaric, Stefan Kapicic, Nenad Jezdic

Serbia 2008

86 mins

If you were to whisper words of reproof into the ear of Serbian director Uros Stojanovic, they would be: ‘Less sex, more hearse.’ His film, Tears for Sale, is darkly delightful - a fairy tale for grown-ups, lit by a constellation of candles, which mostly adheres to the Gothic sensibilities of Stojanovic’s wayward imagination. Except for the extended sex scene - which takes places in a hearse - but looks like it was filmed by someone else entirely; someone whose sensibilities are more aligned with rubbish soft porn than the witty, off-kilter work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Amelie fame) or Guy Maddin (Careful, The Saddest Music in the World).

Set in an isolated Serbian village at the end of WW1, Tears for Sale tells the story of two sisters - Ognjenka, with a blonde rope of Rapunzel hair, and her dark-locked, tempestuous sister Mala Boginja, who has a penchant for bathing in the cursed pool formed by her great-grandmother’s tears of grief. The siblings are professional mourners, paid to wail at funerals, and there’s a lot to cry about. Ravaged by war, the male population’s been decimated. The women are left on their own, bereft of male company, denied the chance of children and made madly melancholy by the intoxicating spider brandy that conjures visions of their dead loved ones, who re-appear with decomposing grace from behind the splintered bar mirror.

There is one man left on the mountain, decrepit Grandpa Bisa, a dead ringer for Herman Munster, but Ognjenka unfortunately kills him by the power of her screams, and to escape death the sisters must find a fresh man to replace him. If they fail, they will be cursed, and their granny’s dead spirit, newly awakened by the crow-head-dressed witch, will never rest.

The duo take the road, followed by a host of screeching CGI bats, and begin their quest, leaving behind their beautifully realised village with its mined vineyard, flickering shadows and pool of tears, for an adventure in the modern world, bright with sunshine and flapper hats.

The sisters met Arsa, a dissolute dandy and self-styled King of the Charleston and his cohort, Dragoljub, The Man of Steel, both blithely cast as sexual stereotypes by the ever-mischievous Stojanovic. The sisters, separately smitten - Ognjenka with the Man of Steel, Mala Boginja with the King of Charleston - decide not to take their conquests back to the village. Ognjenka heads towards Belgrade with the Man of Steel (who dreams of plummeting off a high-rise building unharmed), while Mala Boginja highjacks a hearse and embarks on that very regrettable sex scene. But no one can escape their destiny in Tears for Sale; the sisters and their lovers are inextricable drawn back to their Grimm home, with tragic consequences for all concerned.

It’s a tale told in broad emotional strokes, with characters that verge on the cartoonish, but there is a genuine poignancy to the visually gorgeous Tears for Sale - the smashed mirrors, the bloodied feet ripped apart by broken drinking glasses in a masochistic tango, the vine-twisted hair-band adorning the latest women to meet her fate in the deadly vineyard suggest the devastating consequences of conflict - loss, sadness, a fatalistic bravado. But none of that excuses the sex and death scene.

Eithne Farry