Thailand's Weerasethakul casts late-festival spell with 'Uncle Boonmee'

, special correspondent in Cannes – Could "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", a slow, strange Thai film featuring a sick old man, his gorilla son, a ghost wife, a princess and a fish with unusual powers, be a dark horse for a prize at Cannes this year?


As the Cannes festival draws nears its end, packed press conference rooms, café terraces and even restroom queues have been buzzing with Palme d'Or predictions: Mike Leigh's ensemble-cast "Another Year", Xavier Beauvois' historical drama "Of Gods and Men" ("Des hommes et des dieux") and Lee Chang-dong's character study "Poetry" have been the titles hottest on critics lips.

But a late-competition dark horse emerged Friday with Thai film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a director known as much for his tongue-twisting name as for his lush, enigmatic movies. Aside from being the entry with the most smile-inducing title, Weerasethakul's new film is, like his previous Cannes entry "Tropical Malady" (which took home the third-place Jury Prize in 2004), a work of voluptuous imagination and teasing humour.

"Uncle Boonmee" infuses its examination of love, loss and spirituality with strong supernatural currents as well as cheeky, vaguely Lynchian touches of horror and science fiction. The plot concerns an old man, the uncle of the title, whose failing kidney confines him to a countryside cottage, where he is tended to by a few close relatives and a young Laotian care-giver. Boonmee receives visits from the ghost of his deceased wife and a reincarnation of his son, who now appears as some kind of gorilla with bright red eyes. In Weerasethakul's singular universe, such apparitions are introduced with little fanfare and swiftly integrated into the cast of characters.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's filmography

2000 : Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Dokfa nai meuman)
2002 : Blissfully Yours (สุดเสน่หา, Sud sanaeha)
2004 : Tropical Malady (สัตว์ประหลาด, Sud pralad)
2006 : Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ,, Sang sattawat)
2010 : Loong Boonme Raleuk Chaat

The rest of the movie follows them on a journey to a cave in which Boonmee was born in his first life and would like to die now that he feels he only has a few days remaining. Along the way, the director stops for an odd, strikingly beautiful narrative detour about a princess and a fish with very unusual powers. Its a slow-moving, deeply strange film, and its shape-shifting story does not lend itself to easy interpretations.

But unlike Godard with his Film Socialisme, for example, Weerasethakul invites you into his strikingly composed visions; ghosts drift into view from a corner of the screen, silhouettes of lurking figures can be spotted in the dark, sultry jungle, and various human and animal creatures interact nonchalantly through wryly comic dialogue and physical contact.

Uncle Boonmee is a challenging film, but one that lulls you under its spell and rewards you with memorable imagery. Its offbeat blend of poetry and mystical forces both menacing and nurturing also seems like it could be a good fit for the tastes of jury president Tim Burton.

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