`Uncle Boonmee' is a curious collage of art cinema which demonstrates the distance between mainstream Hollywood movies and the everyday culture of the Far East. We first saw it at an arts centre and it was obviously unrewarding for a significant segment of the audience who exited stage left after half an hour. The pacing is languid in the extreme while much of the meaning is obliquely obscure. Yet overall the experience of watching `Uncle Boonmee' was a positive one - it may be mysterious and wilfully weird, but it was also intriguing and delicately involving.
Part of the reason for our confusion is that this is the final part of a series of short films and video installations from northern Thailand, near the border with communist Laos. These examine the history of the area in the 1960s when a Communist uprising in Thailand was aggressively suppressed by the Thai authorities. So it's hardly surprising that many of the underlying themes to `Uncle Boonmee' will leave the casual viewer somewhat bewildered.
However, the film's main theme of impending death and possibly being reunited with loved ones in the hereafter is universal and needed no translation or explanation. Boonmee is a successful hill farmer, dying of kidney failure. In his final days his missing family return to nurse him - or perhaps to guide him on his final journey. The appearance of the spirit of his dead wife at the dinner table is handled with delightful matter-of-factness. `You must be hungry' says his dead wife's living sister... and after a shocked moment, the group settles back down to eat. It's as if the boundary between life and death becomes permeable as one of us approaches it, and Boonmee's love for his wife has tethered her spirit to the mortal coil. In the scenes between Boonmee and his wife the film achieves an immense emotional intensity without ever becoming sentimental in the slightest.
The different stages of `Uncle Boonmee' are filmed in different styles. The opening chapters are very, very slow; a study in the tedium of a long car journey contrasts with a cow's languid progress through a meadow. It's fair to say that nothing much happens, and it takes a long time not happening. Later segments are presented as semi-documentary, or in stills, or like an old-fashioned costume drama. The change in presentation keeps the viewer slightly confused and adds to the film's disjointed feel. Also, much of it is presented in near-darkness, which is either atmospheric gloom or a dratted nuisance (but it does mean that the sub-titles are easy to read).
However, the subtle lighting makes the arrival and departure of the spirits all the more meaningful, and you start to believe that there may be a personality lurking in the foliage of every frame... and red glowing eyes will follow you home.
I suspect that some of the scenes aren't intended to make any kind of literal sense, so gave up worrying about what went on between the princess and the catfish. The ending is deliberately odd, too. But the emotional essence of the story is captured in some moments of every day honesty - the sharing of honey, fresh from the hive; the gentle dedication of Boonmee's assistants as they tend to his medical needs. And in the background lurks the political conflict between the Thai and the Lao, played out in rural fields between workers and farmers.
Not an easy film to love, and one which provides more questions than answers. But worth experiencing.