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.

Schmitke (2015)

Début filmmaker’s surreal mystery set in the Czech countryside is a baffling take on finding identity.

schmitkeCzech Republic/Germany
3.5*

Director:
Štěpán Altrichter

Screenwriters:
Jan Fusek

Tomáš Končinský
Štěpán Altrichter
Director of Photography:
Cristian Pirjol

Running time: 95 minutes

Something is a little off in the German-language Schmitke, which opens in Berlin – where there is much talk of a “Bear-Man” who has been discovered in the wild – and closes deep in the forests of the former Sudetenland, on the Czech side of the border with Germany. Right at the beginning, when we first meet the title character, a middle-aged, unsmiling engineer (Peter Kurth) working for Deutsche Windenergie, we notice this German company has English-language posters on which the word “engineers” is misspelled. It is a small point, but if you notice it, you will immediately recognise that the world of the film is deliberately warped and confused, and things quickly get even weirder.

Julius Schmitke’s daughter arrives out of the blue and (literally) sets up camp inside his house, adding a statue of Buddha to his furnishings and trying to convince him to reconsider his nondescript existence. At work, his boss decides to send him and his loudmouth assistant, Thomas (Johann Jürgens), to the Ore Mountains to fix a broken wind turbine, and once the two arrive in the backwoods of civilisation, where the fog hangs thick and the forest almost becomes a character, everything they knew is turned upside down.

Schmitke is unconventional and uncategorisable, striving simultaneously to be a gentle contemplation of the mysteries of nature and a madcap absurdist thriller. Directed by the young Czech filmmaker Štěpán Altrichter, it is impossible to ever get a firm grip on the events that, as revealed during the final credits, may all just be a big dream.

The opening scenes at the energy company in Berlin have moments reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s work, especially when a crowd of people, expressionless and motionless, intently focuses on the only object in the room that is in motion. For the most part, Kurth’s imperturbable, deadpan performance is very effective, as it counters the actions of others in unpredictable ways. But the major plot point driving the narrative forward – the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Thomas – gets lost in the thick, mysterious atmosphere that Altrichter so painstakingly constructs.

With the exception of Julie (Helena Dvořáková), who runs a fancy hotel on a hilltop, it is impossible to describe anyone in the film as devoid of eccentricity, and the director emphasises the peculiarities of the Czech rural population in particular with sly digs at their language (Julie’s surname is the unpronouncable Řeřichová, the town is Chřmelava) and customs (upon arriving in the tiny town, Thomas proclaims they have travelled back in time; and in the bar, a deadly silence fills the room when Schmitke asks for tea instead of beer).

The style of the film may perhaps be best described as a kind of provincial surrealism mixed with poetic absurdism that leads to scenes such as a GPS system breaking down by changing its mind (“turn right… no… turn left…”) and a wind turbine that seemingly stops and starts just to provoke and confound the rational Schmitke.

Schmitke is no Homo Faber, but in the end, he does show some potential for having a fuller appreciation of the inexplicable. It is just a shame that the film itself nearly collapses in the process. It switches gears too rapidly from broad comedy to observational minimalism, and especially the second half of the film feels like a slow-motion implosion that is only flimsily sustained by the comical sounds of the Hammond organ on the soundtrack and the screeching sounds of the wind turbine struggling to rotate its blades.

Some of the film’s most intelligent details are its small moments of humour, like when Schmitke and Thomas get keys to rooms ‘1’ and ‘3’, clearly signalling impending misfortune, or the unexpected words of wisdom of an old lady at the bar, or the subtle repetition of incidents suggesting we may either be seeing different shades of the same event or people running on a hamster wheel.

There are few answers – even the questions are in short supply – and this lack of concrete information will frustrate many a viewer looking for a sturdy narrative backbone.

Unfortunately, the abundance of shots of the forest and the director’s unwillingness to make language more of an issue (everybody in this Czech hamlet can apparently speak almost perfect German, which leads to absolutely no discomfort, ever) hurt the audience’s involvement in this film that should have been much shorter than its 100-minute running time. Also, a shot in which Schmitke walks off-screen through heavy fog in a fixed long shot could have been utilised much more effectively, for example, by having him re-enter from the other side, at the same or at another location.

Schmitke is an experimental but quirky take on finding oneself. It is not always successful at keeping us engaged, and its second act is unnecessarily slow, but the rich soundtrack and unflappable performance of the lead actor will make this an interesting addition to any festival lineup.

Viewed at the 22nd International Film Festival Prague (Febiofest)