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Film / Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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Bigfoot lives!

"Heaven is overrated. There's nothing there."
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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a 2010 film from Thailand, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Uncle Boonmee is a rancher and beekeeper, who is suffering from terminal, end-stage kidney failure. He has gone to the countryside to die, accompanied by his sister-in-law Jen, her nephew Tong (who happens to be a monk), and Jai, a Laotian immigrant who is serving as basically Boonmee's hospice nurse.

One night at dinner, the ghost Boonmee's wife Huy, dead 19 years, shows up out of nowhere. After some initial shock the family takes this pretty well, Huy telling them that she could hear their prayers from the other world, that heaven isn't very interesting, and that ghosts are attacked to people, not places. Then their son Boonsong, who has been missing for many years, also turns up at the same dinner—having been transformed into a sort of Bigfoot creature. The Bigfoot creature (Word of God calls it a "monkey ghost", but that phrase is not mentioned in the film) was seen in the opening sequence, and is seen at other times throughout the movie, staring with spooky red eyes. It turns out that Boonsong, who used to be a photographer, spotted the monkey ghost and went into the forest to find it, and somehow became one.

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After his visit Boonsong seems to go back to the forest, while the ghost of Huy remains to care for Boonmee as he approaches the end. Boonmee wonders about concrete concerns, like what will happen to his sister-in-law, and more existential dilemmas like what sort of karma brought him here and what he might become in his next life.

Also, a woman has sex with a catfish.


Tropes:

  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti: The "monkey ghost", which lopes around the forest Bigfoot-style. It may represent the spirits of the dead, as shown by the scene near the end where several pairs of staring red eyes show up in the forest after Boonmee dies. Just how Boonsong became one isn't really explained, although it may be that he got lost in the forest and died.
  • The Fantastic Trope of Wonderous Titles: The movie isn't as whimsical as the title might suggest.
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  • Flashback: A flashback shows how Boonsong the photographer went off into the forest to chase after the monkey ghost, and never came back.
  • Interspecies Romance: The princess is left sobbing by a pond after the porter leaves her. Some sort of magic catfish that lives in the pond surfaces, and tells her she's beautiful. The princess then walks into the pond and offers herself to the catfish. The catfish then performs cunnilingus on the princess—yes, really, complete with a shot of the woman moaning in orgasm as the catfish thrashes about between her thighs.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: The princess, who has grown older and has some sort of facial growth, looks into the pond and sees a reflection of herself in her youth and beauty. She mourns her lost beauty and rejects the porter, whom she decides is only with her because she is a princess.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Many long shots, held for a long time, with the camera never moving. One scene near the end simply has the camera, completely motionless, recording Tong taking a shower.
  • Mind Screw: This really is an odd film.
    • First, there's the scene where a princess has sex with a catfish.
    • That scene also comes out of nowhere and has no connection to anything that happens in the movie before or after. Was Boonmee the princess in a past life? Or the porter, or the magic catfish? Who knows?
    • The whole opening sequence, some six minutes, shows a water buffalo which breaks its rope and wanders around for a while, until a man comes and retrieves it. What does it mean?
    • The Bigfoot creatures, aka "monkey ghosts." What are they? Where do they come from? How did Boonsong become one? They may be spirits of the dead in the forest, but the only hint of this comes in the scene where Boonmee dies in the cave. The ghost of his wife disappears. We see the glowing eyes of a monkey ghost, then another, then another, then another. Is this Huy and a freshly dead Boonmee joining the others in the spirit world?
    • The idea that they may be spirit creatures is however undercut by a sequence of stills showing Army soldiers going on what can only be described as a Bigfoot hunt. One of them is shown leading a monkey ghost by a lasso. Then there's a final shot of the monkey ghost posing with the soldiers in a shot that looks like buddies at a frat party.
    • Tong comes to see Jen and her daughter in a hotel room, after the funeral. He suggests they go out to eat. He showers and changes from his monk's robe into regular clothes. Jen gets up to go. Tong is about to leave when he is startled to see himself, or a doppleganger of himself, still in the hotel room, sitting with the daughter and a doppleganger of Jen after Original Jen has already left the room. Tong and Jen go to a karaoke club and get a booth. There's a shot of Tong and Jen somehow also still back in the room. There's a final shot of Jen 1.0 in the booth. Then the movie ends.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: They can appear and disappear, but when they do, they are fully corporeal. Huy talks with Boonmee just as she did in life. She also performs the procedure where Boonmee's kidney is being drained.
  • Past-Life Memories: Oddly, considering the title, this trope is mostly averted. The only time a specific reference to a past life occurs is when Boonmee makes a visit to a cave and remembers having been born there once in a past life, but when, or as what, he doesn't know. Maybe Boonmee was once the water buffalo we see wandering around the forest in the opening sequence? Maybe he was the princess in a past life? Maybe.
  • Too Important to Walk: The princess is carried about on a litter.
  • Uptown Girl: The princess has a relationship with one of the porters bearing her about on a litter. Surprisingly, it's he who breaks her heart, as she figures out that he's only with her because she's a princess.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Boonmee is acutely aware that he's not going to be around much longer, though his sister and others try to keep up happy talk.
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