My review of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as published in the Express Tribune:
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a nostalgic exploration of the magical, mysterious and the miraculous. It reminds me of stories I used to hear while I was growing up — stories about spirits, jinns and how our ancestors dealt with death. This was a time when the supernatural was a part of everyday life, when people cohabited with ghosts, prepared for their deaths with calm and understanding, in fact their entire relationship with death was completely different. No doubt this also had a lot to do with influences from various sub-continental religions. Buddhism, the predominant religion in Thailand, being one of them.
In the movie, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) brings his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) to his farm in rural Thailand, where he is preparing for his imminent death. He is suffering from kidney failure, and requires frequent dialysis. Boonmee has decided to leave everything to Jen. On the first night as they are having dinner, they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay. Both Boonmee and Jen deal with this situation quite well. Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), the only young person on the table, is a bit freaked out. Soon, they are joined by Boonmee’s son, who died ages ago and has now turned into a kind of creature of the forest. The conversation that ensues is intense and sets the mood for the rest of the film.
From time to time we see flashbacks from Boonmee’s previous lives, but without the obvious flashes and colour treatment that dumbed-down Hollywood movies would throw in. The movie begins with one: a parable in which a restless buffalo breaks free, only to find that there is nowhere that it really wants to go. Death, karma, human relationships and spirituality are the major themes of this brilliantly made movie. Finally, it is time for Boonmee to go, and Huay’s ghost leads him to the place where his spirit was perhaps first born. Here he recalls what would be his last dream, one of the future. This in itself is fascinating because uptill now we have only dealt with the past, and now at the time of death, we see the only vision of the future. Weerasethakul has chosen to illustrate the narrative of this dream using pictures, some of which are quite comical. Boonmee says that in his dream the people of the future shine a light at ‘past people’ which projects images of them onto a screen, and this causes the ‘past people’ to disappear. This light that they shine must be the camera, for the television certainly has a large part to play in the death of spirituality.
Uncle Boonmee... is beautifully shot by Yukontom Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and the way they have shown night-time in the lush Thai jungles deserves special mention. Often cinematographers use filters and cheat night scenes while actually shooting during day, which invariably looks fake. But here, it is most definitely night: blue and mysterious. To watch Uncle Boonmee… you’ll have to be calm, as it progresses rather slowly, and you will also have to embrace the fantastical. The glowing red eyes of the monkey-ghost can look ridiculous if watched through only ‘modern’ eyes. And it is such eyes who fail to see the spiritual world. The tragedy is that if you stop believing, it ceases to exist.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2011.
A review of Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void for the Express Tribune:
The first act of Gasper Noe’s extremely trippy movie Enter the Void is a lot like the visuals one sees at underground dance clubs. In fact, if I was doing visuals for such a club, I would definitely use parts of it.
If his 2002 film Irreversible starts off on a particularly disturbing note and keeps heading in a more positive direction, then Enter the Void is pretty much the opposite. Kind of, not really. We start off with a first-person look into the life of Oscar (played by Nathaniel Brown), a French orphan living in Tokyo who has just started dealing drugs. And we get a first-hand look into the effects of some of the drugs that Oscar is selling, and dabbling into as well.
The gimmick in Irreversible was the maddening rotating camera movement and backwards timeline, and in Void the first gimmick is the point-of-view camerawork. We see everything from Oscar’s eyes, with the screen actually going black when he blinks. It is him we see whenever he looks into the mirror. At one point Oscar tries something referred to as DMT, and we see visuals similar to, but a lot more advanced than, the iTunes visualiser.
Oscar’s beautiful younger sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) doesn’t approve of his lifestyle, and is seeing the decidedly dodgy owner of the strip club where she works. Then Oscar dies and, as his spirit leaves his body, we continue to see things from his point-of-view. Only now we are able to fly all over Tokyo, through space and time, when we go to the France of Oscar and Linda’s past, learning many disturbing things which explain how both siblings ended up the way they did. The camera miraculously floats through walls, over roofs, along alleys, up into the sky, wherever Oscar’s unfortunate spirit goes. Second gimmick.
Aleksadr Sokurov once gave an interview about his 99-minute single-take film Russian Ark. When he was asked about the Herculean accomplishment of shooting an entire feature-length film — especially one as visually rich as Russian Ark — in a single take, he responded by saying that that aspect of it was just a gimmick, the movie was much more than that. But I really don’t know if I can say the same for Enter the Void. Although initially the movie is visually stimulating, at some point the endless floating through walls begins to get annoying. There is plenty of production and post-production wizardry that has gone into this film, but the result gets tedious by the time you finally reach the 161st minute of it.
I don’t think that every movie needs to a life-changing experience, and Noe touches on a lot of really interesting subjects in the movie, but Enter the Void somehow seems to suffer from a chronic lack of substance. Or, perhaps, from too much of it — there is so much going on with the flashbacks and the flying around, it’s hard to tell which. When a filmmaker uses such overpowering gimmicks, then it must be very tricky not to let them take over the most important aspect of the film: the storytelling. I feel Gasper Noe failed to do so.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.