Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

There are no words I can use to do proper justice to the mood altering properties of this film. Though its virtually non-existent storyline was very slow paced, I was totally engulfed in its weirdness, and left the cinema in a hazy state of contemplation. Winner of the Palme d’Or with rave reviews from the critics, this ‘ethereal’ and ‘impenetrable’ fantasy charts the final days of Boonmee, a Thai farmer suffering with chronic kidney failure. Having accepted that death is near, he opens up to a series of otherworldly experiences.


Uncle Boonmee is essentially the story of a dying man who receives a visit from his sister in law Jen and her son Tong. One evening whilst sat down to dinner, Huay, the spirit of Boonmee’s wife who has been dead for nineteen years, visits the three of them. Unlce Boonmee’s missing son Boonsong appears shortly after Huay’s apparition, now taking the shape of a “Monkey Ghost”. This unusual family get-together is followed by a series of very silent and (sometimes) emotional scenes, an absolutely bizarre past-life regression and an unforseeable conclusion. The sequences in the film do not follow one another in the traditional sense of a story and rely more on the use of heavily magnified sounds, natural light and emotion to convey their individual moods and messages.

Dreaminess breaks down your defences to accept a moving slice of philosophy wrapped up in an unusual story of a family’s emotional journey. When Huay first appears at dinner she comes into being incredibly beautifully and gently, turning from transparent to as solid and tangible as the living characters. She is received by Boonmee as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The questions he asks her are an accurate demonstration of human curiosity; his relationship with Huay is a particularly touching aspect of the story. Huay relates a moving sombre and solitary post-death existence which I found particularly overwhelming when juxtaposed with Boonmee’s touching reaction to his wifes arrival. A particular scene where he holds onto Huay, hugging her tightly, demonstrates the filmmaker’s strong empathy with those who have lost someone close. One hug encompasses love, relief and fear to transcend the sometimes complex themes and become universally comprehensible. Anyone who can identify with Boonmee’s position as a widower/widow will find this film quite cathartic.

Probably one of the eeriest scenes in the film is the arrival of a large black bigfoot type figure with piercing red lights where his eyes would be. It’s Boonsong, once a man, now a ‘monkey ghost’ who precedes to tell the story of how he came to take his beastly form. Boonsong’s frosty demeanour coupled with crimson flashbacks to the dark room where he, as a boy, would develop photographs of the monkey ghosts, all add to a brilliantly chilling atmosphere.

Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives

Boonmee’s past life regression sequence sees a troubled princess submit to the charms of a talking catfish beneath a waterfall. This scene, though bizarre, is a brilliant example of how the film plays with colour and light – it is beautifully shot with lots of muted gold, blue and green and dappled water. Long dark scenes of flora and fauna are followed by sunny shots of the Thai countryside. Right from the beginning of the film, these unearthly vistas set the tone stylistically and I found myself immersed in self-referring sequences that play with sun/moonlight to enhance atmosphere. Although it is most probable that there are many references to symbolism within Uncle Boonmee that are beyond general Western comprehension, I found the visuals aesthetically pleasing enough that these ulterior themes didn’t warrant detailed explanantion.

As we near the end of the film, we follow Boonmee on a journey through caves, accompanied by Jen, Huay and Tong. This progression is strange, dark and quiet. Sinister premonitions are cast. These scenes might have proved a tidier but far less interesting conclusion than that which is ultimately provided. Set outside of the rural backdrop that has accompanied the rest of the film, the ending adds a bigger sense of mystery to the entire film and gives dimension to a disjointed story.

An intriguing and powerful piece of asian cinema, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives was completely individual and effortless to absorb. The beautiful use of fading colours and natural light was used in clever contrast to Boonsong’s strange LED eyes and the artificial torchlight in the caves. Sound, visuals and genuine human emotion are perfectly utilised in this film, and cannot fail to transport you into Boonmee’s surreal world. I would wholeheartedly recommend catching this at the cinema if you can; it’s a sensory treat that definitely deserves viewing on the big screen.

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