Tag Archives: Thai cinema

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



Format: DVD

Release date: 10 May 2010

Distributor: Icon

Directors: Banjong Pisanthanakun, Paween Purikitpanya, Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, Parkpoom Wongpoom

Writers: Banjong Pisanthanakun, Paween Purikitpanya, Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, Parkpoom Wongpoom

Original title: See prang

Cast: Laila Boonyasak, Maneerat Kham-uan, Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk

Thailand 2008

111 mins

As with most horror anthologies, Phobia (or 4bia to give the film its alternative, gimmicky title) is a mixed bag. A quartet of ghost stories from Thailand that vary in stylistic tricks and genre clichés, they are united by the impression they give of being extended 10-minute shorts hastily jammed together with no particular format. Some of the stories are linked by references to other characters but there’s no common theme or central thread, and the title itself is misleading: this isn’t an exploration of different phobias, just a straightforward play on people’s understandable and natural fear of ghosts.

The first segment, Happiness, is throwaway. A lonely woman is trapped in her apartment thanks to a broken leg and begins a text conversation with an admirer from beyond the grave. With little dialogue and the girl constantly flipping up her mobile to check for messages, it seems to have been written by the cut-throat producers from the Orange ads and proves why interacting with technology just doesn’t make for good cinema, no matter how much the phone companies want it to happen.

This is followed by Tit for Tat, a jittery, flashy attempt to create a mythological villain in the style of Japan’s Ring or Death Note. The rushed story sees a school kid take revenge on a gang of bullies by invoking some sort of devilish spirit from a book, the gimmick being that whoever looks at the page is instantly killed. This results in some splattery deaths that would be vastly improved if director Paween Purikitpanya stopped his pop video editing and filter changes to give the characters some room to breathe. Tension is sacrificed for gore, perhaps to cram in the thrills lacking from Happiness, and it quickly descends into muddy and unnecessary computer effects that only prove why all successful horror movies employ the ‘less is more’ approach.

The second half is a vast improvement with In the Middle being the anthology’s stand-out, not because it’s particularly scary but because it keeps a tight, coherent plot, revolving around a group of lads on a camping holiday who are haunted by a friend after he’s drowned. It’s the most post-modern of the collection with the guys talking about twists in movies and ghost stories while being trapped in one themselves. Like Scream it’s self-referential, director Parkpoom Wongpoom even gives away the ending to his own film Shutter, and the humour is engaging until it reveals a neat little shock of its own.

Last Fright is the most technically accomplished of the bunch, a slow-burning chiller that doesn’t rely on ropey effects, just old-fashioned storytelling. It follows an air stewardess looking after the sole passenger on a plane who she inadvertently kills due to a food allergy. She must then make the return journey with the body, which, of course, comes back to haunt her. Thunderstorms and sheer panic evoke William Shatner’s desperate passenger in the classic Twilight Zone episode ‘Nightmare at 20000 Feet’ but Last Fright‘s slow start sums up the issue with Phobia as a whole; that at half an hour, each story stretches its concept thinly - except for Tit for Tat, which feels like a feature film stripped of its characterisation - and put together it’s a lengthy exercise, but one that does showcase Wongpoom’s skill as an accomplished horror director.

Richard Badley

Phobia screened at the Terracotta Festival of Far East Film in May 2010.