VIFF 2010 Mini Reviews: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but Don't be afraid, Bi! (Day 6 & 7)

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2010). Thailand. Winner: Palme d'or, Cannes 2010.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Boonmee's world renown director - is a Buddhist (and gay, but that may not bear as much relevance for Boonmee as it did for Tropical Malady). I don't advocate having foreknowledge of an artist's life before attempting to analyze his/her work, but in this case, it might just be what may help us put the pieces of this challenging work together. The story - adapted from a Thai book called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives (1983) - revolved around Uncle Boonmee, whose dead relatives appeared to him (and his remaining family) in the night and helped him experience visions of his past lives. Thematically, the film could be explained with a little understanding of a Buddhist-related concept of transience called "wabi-sabi" (so named by the Japanese based on Buddhism's Three Marks of Existence). The idea is to accept that nothing lasts, nothing is complete, and nothing is perfect. In essence, the film was about imperfect beings living a rather surreal, transient life until death transformed them into other imperfect beings. In one of the most eerie sequences in the film, Boonmee was visited by his presumably dead son, who transformed into a gorilla-like beast with glowing red eyes. It may have been a nod to old Thai cinema, but it could also be interpreted as a nod to the tranformative link between us and our closest relatives and/or evolutionary ancestors. Elsewhere, marks of imperfection were physically embodied by the film's characters: Boonmee's liver was failing, his sister's legs were asymmetrical, the princess in one of his visions was facially deformed, and so on. Boonmee's past lives may have been shown as a way to prepare him for death, which was depicted as merely a transformative process in which one living form (human or other animals) is exchanged for another. Even violence and oppression - captured in a rather disturbing and comical sequence involving soldiers and the aforementioned beasts - were transient, it seemed. Various cinematic tools and techniques found in older Thai film tradition were in a way relived by the film, suggesting perhaps a continuation and transformation of older cinematic forms. Death was everywhere, but nothing was as final as one may believe.

Winning Cannes' Palme D'or this year may help Boonmee pique the interest of a certain kind of audience - perhaps enough to fill several screenings, especially if it was to be selected by the Oscars in the foreign film category (Boonmee was chosen as Thai's official submission). Sustaining this interest, however, may prove a bit more challenging. Even at Cannes, it was rumoured to have played to a divided audience, judging by the number of walk-outs. Attrition rate was not noticeable at my VIFF screening, but it would not have surprised me had the audience here followed suit. Far from being an offensive film that could have precipitated this kind of reaction, Boonmee was a grand, meta, mythical journey occupying its own stratosphere. It was a thoroughly Eastern/Buddhist film, if a film could be defined as such. There were lots required of its audience, in both patience and willingness to explore a highly unusual, highly fragmented, densely packed mystical quest. However, given that it also embodied the spiritual journey it explored, granting its audience the kind of experience possibly similar to something achieved via meditation, it may just worth skipping yoga classes for.

Don't be afraid, Bi! (Phan, 2010). Vietnam. Special mention, VIFF's Dragon & Tiger Awards.

To Sigmund Freud, life is a struggle between two opposing forces: eros (love instinct) and thanatos (death instinct). First time director Dang Di Phan created a deceptively serene picture within which these two drives came to a head on an ordinary Vietnamese family looking to reconcile its fragmented parts. Bi was a little boy who chanced upon these forces with more wonder than fear, a disposition that the film seemed to implore the audience to adopt, or return to. His grandfather came back to live with the family after having fallen seriously ill abroad. Bi's father, unable to face his own presumed issue of childhood abandonment brought about by the reunion, sought the buzz of alcohol and youthful lust. As a result, the care of the grandfather was transferred solely to the women of the house: Bi's mother, aunt, and housekeeper. Given the subjects at hand, the film could've been a heavy-handed art-house fare. For certain, there were moments in which a checklist of what tended to show up in art house films could be drawn up for the film. However, there were plenty of pleasant surprises in Phan's direction, the most remarkable of which was how the film skipped along lightly, like the wind brushing on his green-field canvas. Eros and thanatos would at times seem to abruptly and forcefully burst on to the screen, but their shadow never completely overpowered the film's blithe spirit.

In the context of the Vietnam war and the profound effect it has had on the country's collective psyche as well as its people's personal history, it was noteworthy how the young director imbued his first work with so much optimism about the healing process. The staging of the film itself was a mix of old and new, with colonial arrangement contrasting modern details. The land and its people seemed to have changed rather quietly and shockingly so from the usual image of a war torn Vietnam burnt in the world's memory. The poetically composed final shot of the plane landing over a cemetery plot, where Bi explored his province and nature at the beckoning of his mother, suggested a cyclical nature of these departures and arrivals. At its heart, the film adopted a zen attitude towards life's deeper forces: things happened, are happening, and will happen. You'd either hop on the train or be left behind, toiling in the misery of your own nonacceptance (like Bi's father). Interestingly, the women in the film seemed to wisely embrace both eros and thanatos with little resistance or struggle, perhaps presenting a commentary on possible gender differences in this arena. The film encouraged the audience to walk unafraid along Freud's ghosts, by showing how they were just a part of our natural being. Once embraced, there was nothing left to fear. We could all be Bi, for the rest of our natural life, if we'd just let our self be.

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