Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

This Palme d’Or winner of year 2010 uses the theme of reincarnation, spirits of the dead and life after death to drive home the concept of ‘karma’ and intricacies of nature.

10/23/20234 min read

Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwong,  Jenjira Pongpas in 'Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past
Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwong,  Jenjira Pongpas in 'Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past

Thai, 114 minutes, 2010

Director : Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwong, Jeerasak Kulhong, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Thongaram, Samud Kugasang

Awards: Won Palme d’Or, Cannes Film festival, 2010; Won Best Film, Asian Film Awards, 2011; Won, Best Foreign Language Film, Toronto Film Critics Association, 2010; Won, Best Cinematography, Dubai International Film Festival, 2010; Nominated Best Foreign Language Film, Chicago Film Critics’ Association, 2011; Nominated Best Director and Best Foreign Language film, London Film Critics’ Circle, 2011

Buddhist abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti wrote a book, ‘A man who can recall his past lives’ in 1983 based on a real man named Bonmee who had the ability to recall his past lives. Apichatpong Weerasethakul wanted to make a documentary styled movie out of it, however, he found out that the man was dead by that time. So he attempted another story loosely inspired from that book. I read, that this film is part of an art installation packaged with some short films, one titled ‘A Letter to uncle Bonmee’ which is actually based on the book mentioned earlier.

The film opens with a slogan, “Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me” and then we see a buffalo, tied to a tree, breaks free and starts running away. After it stops, the caretaker comes and takes it back. This forms the basis of this film which perhaps wants to reiterate that human being wants to break free but some force takes it back to where it belongs. So we see Bonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a kidney patient, travelling to countryside with his dead wife’s sister Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to stay at his farm, manned mostly by people from Laos. Bonmee is taken care largely by a Laotian, Jaai (Samud Kugasang), who does kidney dialysis for him and looks after farm too.

Once when Bonmee, Jen and Tong are having dinner outside, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), Bonmee’s dead wife (and Jen’s sister) mysteriously appears at the table. Initially scared, the family adapts to it quickly and starts conversing with the ghost or spirit of Huay. Soon Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), Bonmee’s son who disappeared few years back while clicking photographs in jungle, appears at the table too. He is looking like a cross between Chimpanzee and man. Boonsong narrates that he was looking for a creature he calls ‘Monkey Ghost’ with whom he was obsessed with because he had captured in one of his pictures. He says that he mated with that ‘Monkey Ghost’ and that is why his hair has grown so much and has red eyes.

While showing his farm during day, Bonmee tells Jen that he believes that his illness is because of his karma. He was once a soldier and had killed lot of communists in war. She in turn, tells him that a soldier is required to do his job but Bonmee is not convinced. He tells her that he has also killed lot of bugs and all that has resulted in infecting him with this failing kidney.

Abruptly, without any rhyme or reason or reference, we see a queen being carried in Palanquin by her servants at night. Interestingly, the sequence is shot in old style of day-for–night format. The queen is not so good looking and feels sad about that. The entourage stops near a waterfall. She kisses a servant who adores her but doesn’t love her. She cries and asks servant to leave. One catfish, swimming in the water, comforts her saying that she is indeed beautiful and has liked her ever since she first visited that place. She ventures into water asking catfish to turn her body fair and offers all her jewelry in return. The catfish makes love to her and the sequence ends.

A sequence, almost towards the end, shows Bonmee with Huay, Jen and Tong in tow going into forest with some monkey like creatures following them from distance secretly. Eventually, they walk into a cave which Bonmee visualizes as womb. As the tired uncle Bonmee rests he narrates that he had visions of future in dream the earlier night in which they are ruled by authorities who can make people “disappear” after “shining” light on them and we see images disconnected from the narration. In cave, Huay disconnects dialysis tube and we see Bonmee’s funeral.

The film heavily relies on the idea of reincarnation and travels from this world to the other world, talks about mating between man and ghost and animal and lady, dealing with living and the spirits of the dead and yet is neither convincing in its plot nor captivating in its content. What jury saw in this film to award it Palme d’Or remains a mystery to me like the film itself. The ending too is vague with Tong, now a Buddhist monk, and Jen getting out of room when he notices that Jen, Tong and Jen’s friend Roong still on bed.

About the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Born in Bangkok in 1970, Apichatpong is a prolific film director, screenwriter, producer and artist from Thailand. His art installations, which consist of package of short films and displays, are regularly exhibited in various art galleries in Europe. Born to physician parents, who both worked in a hospital in the city of Khon Kaen, he grew up in a traditional Buddhist family.

He graduated as an Architect from Khon Kaen University in 1994 where during the course he made his first short film, ‘Bullet’ in 1993. Later he went to Chicago and completed ‘Master of Fine Arts’ in Filmmaking from School of Art Institute of Chicago in the year 1997. His debut feature was a documentary, ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’ in which the crew travelled across Thailand and asked various people to add in their own words to a continuing story. With the premier at ‘Rotterdam Film Festival’ in January 2000, the film received warm reception at various film festivals across the world. It won Grand Prize at Jeonju international Film festival, NETPAC Special mention award at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and was exhibited in London, Singapore and Hong Kong among other countries.

Present film was selected as Thai entry for that year’s Oscar Awards but it did not make it to the final list of nominees. Apichatpong’s this film is final part of a ‘multi-platform Art Project’ called “Primitive”. Other components include a seven-part video installation and two short films titled, ‘A Letter to Uncle Bonmee’ and ‘Phantoms of Nabua’ which were unveiled in 2009. Nabua refers to a village in Northeast Thailand near Laos border. This film was shot on 16 mm and was last of his films to be shot on celluloid film. The film was co-production between many companies across the world.