At first glance, the awarding of the 2010 Palme d’Or – that most prestigious of film prizes – to the Thai dark horse Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives seemed a left-field choice to say the least. Take a look at the jury that year, however – particularly the president – and things begin to make a little more sense. Headed by Tim Burton, it seems obvious that they would go for this lyrical and bizarre ghost story about death, reincarnation, and beekeeping. You half suspect that the only reason that this isn’t a Tim Burton film is the mere fact that Boonmee‘s creator, Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, made it first.
Whilst broadly-liked (if hardly adored) by the notoriously fickle Cannes crowd, Uncle Boonmee was not considered a frontrunner for the prize it ultimately won, competing as it was against Cannes regular Mike Leigh (there with the divine Another Year) and hot home favourite Of Gods and Men (which won the Grand Prix that year on its way to a 2011 César Award for Best Film). But as many film fans have since discovered, there was likely something about Boonmee that got under their skin and refused to budge.
Before winning the Palme d’Or, Weerasethakul – or “Joe”, as he playfully advises most western journalists who struggle with his name – was already a regular fixture at Cannes, having brought his uniquely bizarre brand of cinema there to great success in 2002 and 2004 with Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady respectively. He returned last year with Cemetery of Splendour, which sees its UK cinematic release this week.
So what exactly was it about Boonmee that so captured the imagination of the Cannes jury? A likely factor was quite frankly just how goddamn weird it is – whilst fairly par for the course by Weerasethakul’s standards, by any more conventional measure Boonmee is not an ordinary film. As is typical of his formal style, there are many long, static takes, often going for long stretches without dialogue, which make watching his films a passive and osmotic experience quite unlike anything else. It’s slow cinema at its finest, with an added dimension of the totally surreal.
As the story slowly unfurls, we see the final days of Uncle Boonmee’s existence, as he considers his life after being visited by relatives he thought long dead or missing. Despite his illness, he still manages to enjoy the little things that make his life what it is – a gentle stroll around his land, a sampling of his bees’ exquisite honey, a meandering conversation with his family over dinner – so simple is his life, we wonder how he can so calmly accept the insanity that descends with the return of his deceased wife’s spirit, or his missing son’s arrival in the form of a red-eyed ghost monkey.
These striking images live long in the memory, and are just a couple of the strange, dreamlike visions served up by Weerasethakul’s timeless and evocative storytelling. We see an idyllic scene from one of Boonmee’s earlier incarnations as a lovelorn, disfigured princess who heeds the counsel of a talking catfish she meets under a waterfall. We see tribes of ghost monkeys silently stalking around the forest before being driven out by gangs of marauding youths. We see the strange and glimmering cave in which Boonmee was born in a previous incarnation. Weerasethakul’s stately, meditative and distinctly un-flashy direction and framing allow these images to wash over the viewer, and with nothing hurried or forced upon us, the audience is left to decipher for themselves the meaning of Boonmee.
This glacial pace and the prioritisation of mood and atmosphere over narrative are the very nature of Weerasethakul’s films, and are what make them so hypnotic and thematically compelling. With so little actually going on (at least on a narrative level) during his camera’s introspective exploration of the world, Boonmee is a challenging watch – the audience’s minds will naturally wander as we are invited to ponder its evasive and often cryptic meaning. Like the genre of slow cinema of which Weerasethakul and Boonmee are certainly members, its narrative and aesthetic passivity actively encourage further analysis throughout its duration.
It is the performances, though, that carry much of the emotional heft of Boonmee – Boonmee himself is played with great nuance and melancholy by Thanapat Saisaymar (in his first, and to date only, credited performance) – we can feel the weight of his years and past lives with every perfectly-timed crease of the forehead or absent-minded gaze into the distance. The themes of painful recollection and death are etched in every detail of Boonmee’s face throughout these final days of his.
Weerasethakul’s woozy and intoxicating surrealism lends his films a feeling (and Boonmee more than most) that may not be immediately gripping in the moment, but will linger in the mind long after they have ended. Boonmee evokes those familiar feelings of waking up after a particularly vivid dream, or trying to recall a particularly formative memory – you’ll remember how it made you feel even as the specifics evade you. There aren’t many storytellers capable of creating such indefinable moods, but Weerasethakul is a master at it – and with Boonmee he may well have perfected his craft.