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.

Unbroken (2014)

Story of Louis Zamperini gets sumptuous treatment in dramatically uneven retelling of his World War II ordeal.

unbrokenUSA
3*

Director:
Angelina Jolie

Screenwriters:
Joel Coen

Ethan Coen
Richard LaGravenese
William Nicholson
Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 135 minutes

Life is what happens while some are just trying to survive. In Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s epic, ambitious but also commendably restrained retelling of the life of Louis Zamparini, the canvas is vast and so, too, is the range of pain inflicted on a young man during wartime. Jolie proves to be enormously talented as a storyteller, but unfortunately the film is preoccupied with showing us that everybody has their reasons. In so doing, and by watering down the violence and bloodshed, it also commits the indefensible sin of downplaying the horrors of war.

Zamparini’s life was filled with good fortune but also a great deal of physical suffering at the hands of his captors, and the desire to survive obviously makes him a heroic character that deserves the big-screen treatment. The film plays it safe throughout, making sure to achieve nothing higher than a PG-13 rating by having children-friendly dialogue and restraining its depiction of violence; however, in its final moments it goes for broke by clearly drawing a visual parallel to Jesus Christ on the cross, and the absurdity of this comparison leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

British actor Jack O’Connell does a fine job in the lead, his clean-cut face serving him well as both the romantic representation of the wholesome American and ultimately as the object of sadistic affection of one of his detention camp guards in Japan, the feared Matsushiro Watanabe, better known as “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara).

The first half of Unbroken opens above the Pacific Ocean, aboard a B-52 bomber during the Second World War, where Zamperini is in charge of dropping the bombs at exactly the right moments. There are some hairy situations with the boys in the aircrew nearly losing their lives, and at the most dramatic point in the scene, the film cuts back to Zamperini’s early childhood in Torrance, California, with his Italian immigrant family. He was headed towards teenage delinquency when his older brother noticed how fast he can run, and suddenly, in a jump cut that comes as no surprise, we see him running as a teenager who has turned into an athlete of some renown.

After a few more scenes during the Second World War, we get yet another flashback to Zamperini’s early years, during which he sets off to compete in the Olympics in Berlin, Nazi Germany. This section of the film is magnificent, not only because of the overwhelming success of director of photography Roger Deakins in recreating the feeling of being inside the enormous arena, but also because of the subtle but powerful moment that is so brief the viewer might miss it on the first viewing: When all the athletes gather inside the stadium and the cauldron is lit, Zamperini looks behind him and sees a Japanese athlete looking back at him. They smile at each other in sportsmanlike camaraderie, both elated to participate at the highest level of their game. But as we watch them, the dramatic irony is evident as the bloody United States–Japan war scenes from earlier in the film still ring in our heads.

Once we return to the battlefield, we stay there, and it is a never-ending parade of misery for the poor Zamperini, who spends weeks on the open sea before being taken captive and held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese until after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The quick pace of the first half slows down significantly in the second, as the screenplay focuses intently on Zamperini’s ordeal in the detention camps and the unjust treatment he receives at the hands of the androgynous Watanabe, whose ambiguous behavior towards the Olympic athlete make him a menace from whom we can only expect the worst. Viewers familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence will notice familiar traits in the Japanese sergeant, but unfortunately Ishihara doesn’t bring much to his performance except sexualised menace.

In the film’s final moments, however, Jolie reveals the story behind Watanabe, and while this explanation in no way excuses his actions, the glimpse into his own story does offer us a way of recognising the humanity in some of the most malicious people we have ever come across. But perhaps it is a good thing Jolie decided not to show Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.

“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”, Louis’s older brother tells him in one of the film’s many trailer-ready snippets of dialogue. “If you can take it, you can make it” is another oft-repeated saying. The inspirational power of these two expressions is lost because the moment we hear them, very early in the film, we know they will be important later on.

Given Deakins is the film’s director of photography (the visual stalwart of the films of the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay), it should come as no surprise that the images are gorgeous, as all the yellows and browns are tinged with gold, and the blues of the sky and the ocean hew between azure and a clear green-blue, respectively.

As Russell “Phil” Phillips, one of Zamperini’s crewmen aboard the bombardier, who endures much of the same hardship throughout the film, Domhnall Gleeson delivers a poignant, highly memorable performance. By contrast, Zamperini’s parents are caricatures of Italian-Americans, and his mother in particular, who never learns a word of English, is maddeningly simplistic.

With Unbroken, her second feature film as director, Jolie plays it too safe. Despite the publicity around the film that stresses the personal importance of the project to her, we feel little passion, and only a handful of scenes have the visceral quality we expect from a war film. The notable exceptions come during the characters’ near-death experiences, when the tension is handled admirably without sentimentality or exaggeration.

On the whole, however, the film is rather disappointing, with dialogue that is often stilted and situations that, while perhaps historically accurate, have little credibility when they are stacked together like here. It remains to be seen what becomes of Jolie as a director; as a storyteller, she is very capable, but as a filmmaker, she still has some way to go.