Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fifth film as a single director saw him win a shiny new award out of some ramshackle little French town somewhere, and moving up from the lil’ independents to the big ones across major US cities (for once outside of festival strongholds LA and New York) and even the much-dreaded small town release tour. We might take this to mean it is his best film, or his most “artsy”. Then again, even Cannes isn’t exactly running over itself to get to Guy Maddin, and David Lynch only gets us there these days because he’s American (and even then Cannes hasn’t been his buddy in a while, although there is a sense that even David Lynch is not David Lynch’s buddy properly). Weerasethakul’s earlier films were, if anything, too idiosyncratic and iconoclast for even a festival like Cannes to fall in love with, and Uncle Boonmee sanded off the edges just enough to get him there.
Of course, it’s not exactly easy-going either. Weerasethakul’s enigmatic, quietly resistant work about past lives and the imagination of loneliness, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (an absolutely lovely title at that), is set in the abstract concept of a jungle that might as well be rural Thailand. Boonmee is himself an ailing man spending his last days with his family, both in the present and the past. His world in his final days is the sort of place where the mental and the physical, the past and present, meld together, with Boonmee (played by Thanapat Saisaymar) inviting those relatives who visit him in the present and those who make up his past losses, his deceased wife and lost son, to meld together into an austere melting pot of space and time.
Boonmee’s mind wanders, and Weerasethakul’s camera joins along. He takes on his past, walking with it, teasing what he can out of it, welcoming it as a friend, and confronting it. Thankfully, the film never plays any sort of games with the audience, never asking us what we know or don’t know about the truth of what Boonmee is observing. Instead, Weerasethakul captures a more elusive, greater truth: that “fact” is all in the mind, and for Boonmee at this point in time, everything around him is a truth; he doesn’t any longer have the privilege of non-truths, and the conceptual matters more than the physical for his state of being. Uncle Boonmee is quite literally its title. It is the act of us relating to Boonmee by his life flashing before his eyes, and us stewing around within.
Thankfully, Weerasethakul makes the act of stewing around in his title character’s mind just about the loveliest, most pleasant two and a half hours imaginable. He doesn’t so much coat his internal activity in a bow as infuse it into the wrapping itself, creating a mystery of a location at once concrete and abstract, a location where the world stops and the mind can coexist with all its past states. There’s a grainy quality to the film that almost borders on impressionism, and the high-contrast nature of the images doesn’t so much invite the eye as transfix it. If nothing else (and it is a whole lot else), Uncle Boonmee is a gorgeous motion picture.
In the final analysis, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn’t quite earn the delectably elliptical, fractured quality of its title. It’s lethargic and endlessly cryptic, but somewhat surprisingly straightforward for a director well-known for almost creating a new vision of cinema from the ground-up multiple times over. There’s nothing truly destructive about Uncle Boonmee, which finds Weerasethakul in a place of more quiet passion. Perhaps it’s fitting for a film about an elderly man coming to terms with the impressions of his childhood that it feels less hungry for a sort of radical reorganization of cinema than the director’s other works.
Instead, it’s more comfortable milling around in the world of cinema as it exists – using it for some impressively misty, flowery, sensitive self-exploration and mood-setting in the process – but still accepting the general tenants of cinema as they are nonetheless. I wouldn’t want all of the director’s films to work on this register – the man is too unique a visionary force to be calming himself down this early in his career. But for a quiet stopover in the wilderness, it’s a worthy endeavor of porcelain beauty hiding something much more disquieted desperately needing to find a way out. In any case, lesser Weerasethakul is still a work of minor awe and inspiration, and that is something that will never be taken away.
Speaking of lesser works from game-changing masters of the art, The Grandmaster caused quite a fuss this year when it was released to both disappointment in its home country and an even worse fate in the Western world. Everyone’s favorite snake oil salesman, the Weinstein Brothers, saw it fit to cut out a sizable portion of the film (twenty minutes), supposedly to streamline things for sensitive American audiences. Either way, the consensus was clear: Wong Kar-wai’s 2013 release, while gorgeous, inquisitive, sensuous, and a generally effective martial arts not-quite-smack-down, was only all of these things, and not quite the net value of the many years of work Kar-wai invested into his first project in years.
Thankfully, it’s possible to see the full version of The Grandmaster in the US now, a work which restores a sense of clarity and vigor to the basic storytelling, but even this version isn’t quite the film it could have been. Not that it isn’t good – it’s often spectacular in the way only a noirish variation of Kar-wai’s usually luminous mise-en-scene heavy filmmaking can be – but for the man who produced what is still widely considered the greatest single film of the 21st century, it can’t help but feel a tad bit underwhelming. Just a tad, thankfully, but it’s a mighty hurtful tad in the moment, and one that seems pretty gargantuan initially too.
It’s hard to discuss The Grandmaster’s narrative. Partially, this is because it is a mess and the film doesn’t seem so sure of how to find its way to safer ground. But other, more fascinating and deliberate, reasons abound as well. Firstly, the narrative of The Grandmaster, that of the life of Chinese Wing Chun Master Ip Man (partially famous for teaching Bruce Lee) and his relationship to the Second Sino-Japanese War, has been done to death over the past ten or so years in the Chinese/ Hong Kong film industry. Secondly, Wong Kar-wai seems characteristically aware of these base-level concerns about the need for this narrative itself, and he directs accordingly to de-emphasize narrative and instead focus on character as it relates to mood and ambiance.
At some level, then, if The Grandmaster doesn’t truly work as a narrative, it almost gets a pass. Almost, for there’s still far too much plot going on to earn a claim of the film being non-narrative. What does work about the film, however, works immeasurably well, and almost the entirety of this comes straight from Kar-wai’s penetrating vision and incomparable craftsmanship. The film looks absolutely beautiful, defining style as would-be substance and almost perfecting the idea of an impressionist martial arts sequence in the process. Everything about the film, from the dusky haze of the nighttime cinematography to the crisp, luminous color-work when opulence is at the forefront, to the sterling near black-and-white of some sequences, plays like a visual dream, and there is never so little of this on display as to ever grow weary of how beautiful a craftsman Kar-wai is and probably always will be.
Admittedly, one has to ask what exactly Kar-wai is hoping to achieve with his imagery. Here things get a bit muddled. The obvious answers would be that he is attempting to subvert the whole idea of a biopic, de-emphasizing the individual and intentionally leaving Ip Man at a distance to the atmosphere and look of the world around him, to focus on aesthetic and external sense over internal intellect and emotion. Certainly, the way Kar-wai films the whole affair like it was a period piece noir can’t but evoke a certain mistily fake quality to the film and detach us from Ip Man as a person. There’s something truly fascinating in here, a critique of biopics by acknowledging that they are always fictional and can never truly tell us the story of their subject in full. Especially with Ip Man, a figure for China so inescapably connected to the myths that have developed around him over the decades, it is a valid and exciting claim to intentionally attempt a critique of the seemingly dozens of other biopics of that man released in recent years.
But something about the work doesn’t quite coalesce. Certainly, individual moments of glowing golden cinematography do wonders to express the film’s fundamental Old Hollywood style, and to argue that this film’s depiction of Ip Man, and any depiction, can only ever be that of our mythical view of his time period, and of the mythic figures of old we, all around the world, place up on a pedestal. The flow however is off immeasurably, leaving sequences stranded away from each other when they ought to connect, and not so much establishing a painterly cadence as segmenting off the highs from the rest of the film as moments that draw attention more to themselves and what they were trying to do than what they achieve.
It is, at the least, certainly a film in need of a new editing run (and, yes, this includes the non-edited US version), and some of it feels a bit too active and rambunctious for Kar-wai’s hypnotic style (which favors the lethargic over the story-focused). In trying to meld a more eventful narrative to his thoroughly non-eventful style, something was lost in the transition, but there’s so much going right about the film (Tony Leung is also perfect in a title role that calls less for emotion than simply serving as a physical space in Kar-wai’s tapestry), it’s often easy to overlook the film’s faults.