A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s prelude to his award-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives offers very little but looks exquisite and does hint at a deeper meaning.

letter-uncle-boonmeeThailand/UK
3*

Director:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Screenwriter:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 17 minutes

Original title: จดหมาย ถึงลุงบุญมี
Transliterated title: Cdh̄māy t̄hụng loong buỵ mī

For the sake of clarity, this review refers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the film’s “director” while using the term “filmmaker” to point to the anonymous diegetic individual/s who is/are allegedly making the film in front of our eyes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee – a trial run  for what would eventually become his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – eludes explanation to the uninitiated viewer and eschews plot in favour of feeling, which is always a gamble. However, while Weerasethakul does give us a bit more to chew on, it is only in the short film’s closing credits that we get a firm indication of the theme that we were witness to.

The images in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, all linked to the small town of Nabua, are without a main character. Except for what appears to be an ape-like apparition lurking in the forest, there is only a single individual whose face we clearly see, and he never speaks nor does anything of note – in fact, he barely moves at all, and we certainly don’t know his name nor function in the story. But the director does give a subtle hint, as the man, like all of the handful of other characters we see in the film, wears a military uniform, a feature that receives some weight from a voice-over recalling how “soldiers once occupied this place” and that they “killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle”. The many portraits we see on the walls inside the cottage presumably pictures of these villagers.

Furthermore, the closing credits are immediately preceded by a black screen carrying the following dedication, which briefly contextualises the action, albeit with extreme hesitation: “For Uncle Boonmee Srigulwong, who remained in northeastern Thailand for his past reincarnations, and for the residents of the village of Nabua who were forced to leave their homes.”

The film starts by repeating the words in the titular letter to the filmmaker’s uncle Boonmee. However, “filmmaker” is a very slippery term here, because neither of the two (different!) voices that speak the letter via voice-over belongs to Weerasethakul. The fact that the two voices audibly do not belong to the same individual is emblematic of the director’s approach to his story, which relishes the mixture of reality and fiction that is apparent at every turn.

In the short letter, reproduced below, the filmmaker talks about the film we are watching and how it likely fails to accurately depict the reality of his uncle’s living conditions. The making of the film is supported by off-screen dialogue later on about the wording of the letter itself, and we get a very modernist breaking of the fourth wall when we see someone swing the matte box away in order to change a lens and thus allow us to “see things more clearly”.

Uncle,
I have been here for a while. I want to see a movie about your life. So I proposed a project about your reincarnations. In my script, your house is in a longan farm surrounded by mountains. But here there are endless plains and rice fields.
Last week, I met a man I thought was your son. He works at the auto garage. But after talking to him, I thought he was your nephew because his father was a policeman who owned hundreds of cows. Judging from your book, I don’t think you owned a lot of cows. And you were a teacher, weren’t you? The man was old. He couldn’t remember his father’s name very well. Might have been Boonmee or Boonma. He said it was a long time ago.
Here in Nabua, there are several houses well-suited for this short film for which I got funding from England. I don’t know what your house looked like. I can’t use the one in my script since it is so different from the ones here. Maybe some parts of these houses would resemble yours.

These words play out on the soundtrack while we watch the camera gracefully track through the empty cottages, devoid of any life but vibrating with absence as we see room after room with bedding on the floor and portraits on the walls. There is a beautiful transition when the last tracking shot eventually opens onto a full-frame view of a golden sunset in the distance, beyond the lush greenery in the foreground. This moment is accompanied by a question as to whether Uncle Boonmee had a different view from his own home compared with the one we see in front of us.

The uncertainty, which extends to the identity of the subject himself, is clear as day in this letter. But it is interesting to note that even though the filmmaker, whoever he is, addresses this letter to someone who is likely already dead, and he is not sure that the final product will reflect his uncle’s reality, he is confident that his uncle has indeed had multiple lives thanks to reincarnation. Perhaps that explains the bizarre egg-shaped object in the garden, which puffs out thick plumes of smoke from inside itself throughout the film without any explanation.

The end of the film includes the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the hairy creature, which might also be the thing or person barely perceptible behind a thin pink curtain in the cottage on two occasions in the film. However, things move very quickly, and then, suddenly, the story is over, if it ever really started.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee feels disjointed, reaching for mostly uninformative bits of voice-over to compensate for – or perhaps to attempt to mask – the lack of substance. The visuals pique our interest, but the ending will leave most filmgoers (certainly those who haven’t seen the subsequent feature film) scratching their heads and ultimately sinks what comes before.

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God ForgivesDenmark/Thailand

2*
Director:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Director of Photography:
Larry Smith

Running time: 90 minutes

Luis Buñuel’s 1929 short film, Un chien andalou, is well-known for one good reason: In a close-up, it shows a human eye sliced by a razor.

In Only God Forgives, cult director Nicolas Winding Refn references this image — in full colour — at the climax of a scene that sees a man lose not only his eyes, but his ears, his arms and his legs as well, all in near-silence, except for the constant, piercing scream of the victim.

Despite a torrent of violence and most scenes bathed in deep red by either blood, red neon lights or both, Refn maintains a curious and alienating distance from his characters, which means we don’t much care for these individuals who are under constant threat of execution by the sadistic blade-wielding policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Chang is one of two enigmatic central figures responsible for the many sordid incidents of blood loss. The other is Julian, a big drug smuggler in the Bangkok underworld, played by Ryan Gosling, who also starred in Refn’s widely beloved but overhyped Drive.

At the beginning of the film, Chang is called to the scene when a 16-year-old prostitute is found dead in Bangkok. For some inexplicable reason, her killer, an American named Billy, has decided it would be a good idea to stay behind. The girl’s father seeks revenge, and Chang allows the man to beat Billy to a lifeless pulp.

But then, suddenly, Chang turns on the father and pulls a sword from behind his back (which doesn’t, however, impede his ability to chase a criminal at full speed down the road in another scene later in the film) before slicing the man’s arm clean off.

It turns out Billy is Julian’s elder brother, and when Billy dies, their ice-cold mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies into town to demand justice be served.

These early scenes are soaked in red light, which would seem seedy if the visual metaphor of blood wasn’t so ridiculously obvious. The stone-faced Julian, who says little and expresses even less, is unwilling to avenge his brother until his mother forces action from him through emotional manipulation wrought by a personality verging on that of a dominatrix.

The film oozes with style, and the ambiance of the opening act is electric thanks to the dozens of crimson-cloaked objects highlighted by the deep shadows that envelop them. There are hints of film noir, for example the meshwork of shadows that outline the jasmine rays of neon as light is cast through a cement barrier, but without a narrator or a serious femme fatale, the film doesn’t take advantage of the genre.

As he did with Drive, Refn dedicates Only God Forgives to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose El Topo and The Holy Mountain were Surrealist explorations of spirituality. Refn doesn’t do much with spirituality, but the surreal brutality of his work, amped up even from the grisly acts of Drive, is clearly a point that connects the two filmmakers.

A few moments in the film do stand out as particularly impressive. One is a scene in which Julian points a gun at the man who killed his brother, who emotionally confesses to the crime but does so in complete silence, as the music on the soundtrack is the only sound we hear.

Another scene of spectacular filmmaking is the big fight between the otherwise expressionless leads, Chang and Julian, which is accompanied by a Cliff Martinez composition that mixes music produced by an organ and a synthesizer. Unfortunately, Refn’s insistence on inserting multiple push-ins on a statue of a man fighting is as annoying as the statue is irrelevant.

While the images may suggest artifice, the characters are even worse, with barely a hint of an arc between them. Julian is calm and silent (Gosling has fewer than 10 lines of dialogue in the entire film), even though he is supposed to be an important figure in the drug trade. Crystal could potentially be a source of great amusement, as she verbally decimates an unsuspecting hotel receptionist upon her arrival in Bangkok, but she ultimately doesn’t push back against the dark lord of the narrative, police officer Chang.

Chang seems to be a villain of steel, who dodges bullets and fights like a god. He is simply invincible, and despite the single scene of him and his young, tender wife, we get absolutely no sense of his thinking and have no idea what drives him.

Refn’s visual creativity is not consistent, however, as is made obvious when some menacing characters, killers for hire, arrive on the scene in slow motion — which apparently somehow should accentuate their wickedness.

Only God Forgives tries to seem artistic by composing beautiful images and an interesting soundtrack that at times calls to mind the work of Ligeti, but its story verges on being one-dimensional, and it is difficult to care about any of the characters. It seems to enjoy the scenes of its own brutality, including when a long metal spike is pushed right through someone’s ear drum, but the film has no interest in presenting a story worthy of our attention.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.