Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Reviews - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Reviewed By John Stakes

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
What is the connection between last Sunday’s extraordinary Thai film and the French neo-burlesque road film On Tour shown the week before? Whilst both were highly individual and personal films the direct connection is that each premiered at Cannes in 2010 and both won coveted prizes. In the case of Uncle Boonmee this was the Palme d’Or no less. But did it deserve such an accolade?

The title alone telegraphs that Uncle Boonmee is no ordinary film. The starring role is taken by Thanapat Saisaymar, formerly a soap opera and TV commercial actor, who gave up his current day job as a sugar cane worker to return to the acting arena. His director Apichatpong Weerasethakul drew inspiration for his film from the 1983 book of the same name by an abbot in a Buddhist temple who had been visited by a man calling himself Uncle Boonmee and claiming to recall his previous incarnations. This man has terminal kidney failure and decides to end his days by returning to the forest and to conjure up and surround himself with the ghosts of his past perhaps to help comfort him through his final days.

And what a line-up of incarnations! It seems Uncle Boonmee may previously have been a buffalo! The ghost of his dead wife appears along with his dead son who is now a monkey. These incarnations can all be seen by those present. But who was the ageing princess who arrives in a rickshaw and what is the significance of her intimate exchange with a catfish at the waterfall after seeing a reflection of her younger self in the water?

When Boonmee realises he is about to die they all troop off through the forest to a large womb-like cave where Boonmee his mortal coil but not before telling us that whilst he can recall having a previous existence he cannot remember whether he was a man, woman, flesh or fowl. He hopes on his death to be reunited with his dead wife but she has told him that ghosts attach themselves to the living so how will he find her when he dies? Now that was an intriguing thought!

So far this reviewer had felt that notwithstanding the catfish scene the events depicted were not beyond comprehension but the final sequence following the Buddhist funeral service defeated him so perhaps some kind soul (living or dead) will enlighten him in due course!

This was such a personal, idiosyncratic film that it did not open itself up to critical analysis. Perhaps the way to approach it was to let it wash over you and to resist the natural urge to try to make sense of it or to search for inner meaning. The fundamental question was whether it was a cinematic experience? Resoundingly yes. It was never less than intriguing, sometimes sensual and occasionally close to spiritual. Using long takes infused with some evocative sounds Weerasethakul created a transcendental feel but the inscrutability (to westerners only?) of some scenes diluted the lyrical passages, and the rhythm of some scenes suffered from below par editing. Art-house yes but sincere and its perplexity unpretentious.

Apparently this film is the final instalment of a multi-platform art project called “Primitive” set in the Isaan region of north-eastern Thailand close to the border with Laos and centred on Nabua village. The project explored themes of memory, transformation and extinction. According to its director Uncle Boonmee has six reels each shot in a different style including “old cinema” with its stiff acting and classical staging, documentary style, costume drama and Weerasethakul’s own artistic brushwork. This proved to be his last work using traditional celluloid rather than digital which he bemoans.

Weerasethakul’s approach to filmmaking is interesting. He is quoted as saying “I treat my works as my own sons and daughters. I don’t care if people are fond of them or despise them as long as I created them with my best intentions and efforts”. He (with others) founded an independent film school following conflict with the Thai Ministry of Culture over censorship issues. The director of the Ministry’s Cultural Surveillance Dept, Ladda Tangsupachai has said “nobody goes to see a film by Apichatpong. The people want to see comedy. We like a laugh” They are missing something even if we are not quite sure what!

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