If you read other reviews of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” that extol its virtues by using words like lyrical, pastoral, dreamy and fantastic, well, believe them at your own risk.
Because this Thai film, which won the top prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was part of last year’s New York Film Festival (two counter-indicators of an involving or compelling film, if there ever were any), is slow and pointless. While the press kit allows the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (try saying that five times fast), to go on at length about what he meant by the film, the average movie-goer doesn’t have access to that kind of explication.
And, at heart, his explanation is meant to rationalize a movie that drags, dawdles and seems both purposely opaque and pointedly vague.
When I say nothing happens in “Uncle Boonmee,” I mean that in the sense that there is no story. Things do happen, with long stretches of nothing in between them. Among other things, we see:
A water buffalo, tied to a tree in the dim dawn, pulls itself loose and wanders across the landscape, then is recaptured by a character we never see again.
The title character, a farmer in a remote area, gets homecare treatment for kidney disease, which is killing him. He’s attended by his sister-in-law Jen and one of his sons.
At dinner, his dead wife suddenly materializes at the dinner table and chats calmly with all assembled. Then his dead son – who looks like a cross between a Wookiee and a Morlock – shows up as well and talks about mating with a ghost of a monkey god.
Boonmee and Jen wander through his apiary, sampling honey and commenting on its flavor and texture.
There’s an interlude, a fable or fairy tale, about a princess who has an erotic encounter with a catfish. This seems tied to nothing else in the film.
Boonmee and company go walking through the jungle and through a cave.
Jen winds up in a city hotel room watching TV with a friend. They are visited by a saffron-robed Buddhist monk, who takes a shower, changes into t-shirt and jeans and takes Jen out to dinner – even though they’re also still sitting in the hotel room watching TV.
Weerasethakul approaches all this with a deliberateness that borders on the maddening. You know he’s holding these interminable, nondescript shots forever for a reason – or you hope he is, because none is readily apparent.
Why go on? Uncle Boonmee should count himself lucky if none of his future lives include having to watch this movie. For me, watching it seemed to last several lifetimes.