Movie review: 'Uncle Boonmee,' an art film for everyone

Movie review: 'Uncle Boonmee,' an art film for everyone

Unlike Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s past films, considered inaccessible art house fare, his Palme D’Or-winning film is striking all the right chords with Bangkok audiences

The official trailer for "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme D'Or.

On Monday evening, the only seats left for the single nightly screening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” are in the neck-cramping first row. The audience is a mix you don’t normally see at a film here in Bangkok; students still in school uniforms, young couples, loners, professionals and expatriates pack the Emporium shopping mall's SFX Cinema. When the credits roll, few leave their seats. Are they mesmerized by what they have just seen? Savoring the final moments of the rather sudden and unexpectedly uncensored local release? Or just asleep?

Apichatpong’s previous films, hailed by critics but considered largely inaccessible art house fare by the general public, were known to make a few people nod off. His naturalist style and surreal disjointed narratives could leave even the most informed film savant bewildered. But “Uncle Boonmee” is striking different chords here. 

Uncle Boonmee"Uncle Boonmee" director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was awarded Cannes' top prize at this year's film festival. Since its celebrity-packed gala opening in Bangkok on June 25, the Cannes Palme D’Or-winning film has been virtually selling out every one of its limited screenings. While the hallmarks of his earlier work are still there -- an unsurpassed ability to depict nature, superb sound editing, outstanding, understated acting and a narrative that belies Western logic -- "Uncle Boonmee" ties together what might just be a series of beautifully shot scenes with moving and funny musings on the nature of death and reincarnation, love, loss and karma. Sensitive and humorous, fantastical and powerfully realistic, the movie is a rare gem: an art film for everyone.

For the children, there are mythical beasts -- friendly simian ghosts who appear throughout the film to benevolently watch over Uncle Boonmee’s demise. For couples, there is the poignant reunion of Uncle Boonmee with his deceased wife, whose ghost nonchalantly appears at the dinner table like an apologetic, late guest. For the intellectuals, there is a political undercurrent. The film, which is set in the northeastern village of Na Bua, subtly depicts a divide between the Bangkok characters who have fallen out of touch with nature and those from the provinces who continue to be grounded in it. 

Throughout it all, you also feel that "Uncle Boonmee" is a uniquely Southeast Asian film that brilliantly captures not only the atmosphere and sounds of this nation -- be it in the jungle, at the dinner table, or in a hospital room -- but also something far more profound: a respectfully opened window into the minds of those who live outside its cities.

Fortunately, the world will be able to look through this window too. Uncle Boonmee has just been picked up for international distribution by Strand Releasing and is set for its U.S. debut in the spring of 2011.  

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" is currently in a limited month-long release at Emporium's SFX Cinema (BTS: Phrom Phong) that is set to end July 25. Screenings are at 7:25 p.m. nightly with an additional matinee on the weekends. Director Apichatpong will be appearing on CNN's Talk Asia on July 21.