Monday, February 28, 2011

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes winner UNCLE BOONMEE comes to town

I can't tell you how many blank and/or questioning stares I received following the press screening of UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. That was the visual part. Verbally: "This won at Cannes?" What is it?" fell from a number of lips -- most probably from those who have not encountered any other films (Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours, Mysterious Object at Noon) from Thailand's most famous filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  I've seen all of the above films, and I still couldn't tell you what this movie is. Or why the hell it won at Cannes.

From the looks of things, first film to most recent, Mr. Weerasethakul, shown at right, is a very personal filmmaker. He does -- says and shows -- exactly what he wants, and you either follow along with some mild understanding or you do not. His films are of the gentle sort, even when wild animals (Tropical Malady), erections and hard core sex (Blissfully Yours) ghosts and other odd creatures (below and further below, from Uncle Boonmee) appear. History, politics, protest; infatuation, love (gay and straight), regret; work, play, sex; life, death, afterlife. They're all here, but what to make of them is something else entirely.

I used to imagine that I didn't get Apichatpong because I'm not from Thailand. But from what I have read, most of the Thai population doesn't get him either. Still, they've got to come closer than I (or those folk at the press screening). Moment to moment, scene to scene, we could probably describe what is happening to someone who had not seen the film, and that person would understand what we were talking about. But, as ever, at the end of all the explanation, we'd be left with a big "And...?" Little coheres and practically nothing resonates.

It may be that my own lack of understanding of or caring about any religion (or reincarnation) places me at a disadvantage where Weerasethakul is concerned. But that's just a guess. In Uncle Boonmee, the title character is dying and wants to come to terms with death, and his past, as best he can.  This is a rich, raw subject for a movie and many other films have tackled it. If they were not better films, they at least approached the subject in a more obvious manner with the result that viewers could leave the theater mulling over what they'd seen and connecting a few (maybe a few too many) dots. Here, you'll be lucky to get from dot two to three.

Well, I suppose that the filmmaker will simply continue making his very personal movies, happy to reach his small coterie. Those films are also certain to fascinate the fellow's therapist (if he has one), but for many of us they will continue to leave us scratching our heads. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, from Strand Releasing, opens Wednesday, March 2, for a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum.

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