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.
Here’s a review I did for the Ji-woon Kim movie I Saw the devil, as published on Express Tribune:
I Saw the Devil is the fourth Ji-woon Kim film I have seen and loved, and amazingly, each one is vastly different from the next.
A Tale of Two Sisters was a horror flick, A Bittersweet Life became one of my favourite action movies, and The Good, the Bad and the Weird was a hilarious comedy-western. Which brings us to I Saw the Devil, a nail-biting crime thriller. Kim’s versatility and his ability to excel in each genre he explores reminds me of my all-time favourite director Stanley Kubrick.
I believe this is the third consecutive Ji-woon Kim movie starring Byung-hun Lee, and here he plays Kim Soo-hyeon, an agent working for a South Korean intelligence agency. His fiancée is brutally murdered by a serial killer Kyung-chul (played by Choi Min-sik fromOldboy), and Soo-hyeon makes it his life’s purpose to track down the killer and exact a revenge that truly, and I mean truly, makes the killer feel the pain that he inflicted on his victims.
Every time Soo-hyeon catches Kyung-chul he tortures him, then proceeds to have him treated for the injuries that he has inflicted on him, so that he can feel the pain all over again the next time he catches him. Perversely, not only does Kyung-chul start enjoying this cat-and-mouse game with his hunter, but Soo-hyeon also begins to cross the line, slowly becoming a monster himself, The ensuing internal conflict the protagonist suffers after realising this makes the movie psychologically so much more interesting than a straight-up revenge thriller like, say, Taken. Indeed, the question is: how easy is it to become a ‘monster’? If a ‘normal’ person was pushed beyond a certain point, could he or she do something as horrible as what Soo-hyeon does?
Byung-hun Lee is absolutely brilliant in the film, reminiscent of his role in A Bittersweet Life. He is unbelievably tough and resilient, yet emotionally vulnerable. And Min-sik Choi plays his character superbly: he is menacing, chaotic, and a slave to his wanton desires. Anything is possible with Kyung-chul, he has no limits, and that is a reality that Soo-hyeon has to face and pay for dearly when he messes with him.
Along the way, Soo-hyeon also meets some pretty messed up friends of Kyung-chul’s and these encounters are some of the best parts of the movie, a darkly comic celebration of madness and murder. In fact, we go through a directory of psychopaths, and one begins to see that there is a kind of hierarchy amongst them, with Kyung-chul undoubtedly coming out on top. Oh yes, I Saw the Devil is certainly not for the faint-hearted, there is much blood-gushing severing of limbs that goes on throughout the movie. And I won’t say that it isn’t indulgent, because what else should a director do if not indulge his audience?
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 30th, 2011.