Friday, February 11, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 8: UNCLE BOONMEE & IN A BETTER WORLD

The press screening at the Whitsell Auditorium was packed on Wednesday in anticipation of two of the more hyped up films at this year's installment of PIFF.  Susanne Bier's (After the Wedding, Brothers) newest picture, In a Better World, took the best foreign language film award at the Golden Globes and is nominated in the same category at this year's Academy Awards.  Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, besides winning the competition for the longest title in the PIFF schedule, is the first film from Thailand to receive the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Uncle Boonmee is the sort of film that will appeal strongly to a certain kind of filmgoer, while leaving the majority of viewers wondering why so much attention has been placed upon this curious Thai import.  One of the festival staff confessed that a passholder complained that he has had "a better time watching oil drip down a dipstick."  Having said that, Weerasethakul's film is among the best two or three films I've seen in the program thus far.  It's a movie that continues to clang around in your head days after you've seen it.  I'm already dying to see it again.

Weerasethakul keeps the narrative wide-open, blending everyday life and myth within a loose and experimental narrative that requires the audience to suss out much of the details for themselves.  Coming out of the film with a friend, we spoke about it in terms of lenses through which the film could be viewed, rather than the specifics of plot, ranging from the mindful juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces to representations of time.  None of which goes anywhere near describing what the film looks or feels like to a first-time viewer. 
What to expect: long (VERY long) takes of natural jungle settings, vividly life-like sound design, supernatural events, unexpected movements away from the primary narrative with little to no conventional segue (ex: hey, suddenly there's a princess being carried through the jungle by her, ok, I'll just go with it), etc.

I really don't want to talk too much more about the film, as I'd encourage potential viewers to go into it with as little preconception as possible.  But here's just a very basic overview of the plot:
Boonmee is a man dying of kidney failure.  One evening while dining, the spirit of Huay, Boonmee's late wife, appears at the table.  While having a conversation with Huay's ghost, their long-missing son, Boonsong appears in a greatly transformed state.  There's talk of shadowy figures called "monkey ghosts" and interspecies (or is it supernatural) mating.  Oh, and later there's an awe-inspiring and befuddling sequence involving a princess and a catfish.  Yup...a catfish.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 16th at 8:45pm.  There is an additional screening at Cinemagic on Feb. 18th at 9pm.

In a Better World is exactly the type of film you expect to see programmed in festivals and featured at awards shows.  Examining nothing less than the human condition and the phenomenon of violence as it cycles through the culture, it sets its sights on extremely lofty (and hyper-dramatic) goals that, although traveled by many other filmmakers (yeah, I'm lookin' at you Alejandro González Iñárritu), it mostly ends up achieving.

Centering on two young boys, Christian and Elias, who have come under the attack of school bullies, the film exhibits how (yeah, I's simplistic and obvious) violence begets more violence.  Parallel to the schoolyard squabbles, Elias' father, Anton, is bullied by a mechanic after Anton breaks up a fight between two kids at a playground.  Despite Anton's warnings that reprisals will only bring more trouble, Christian and Elias decide to teach Anton's bully a lesson, a decision that spirals out of control, as these things tend to do.

In a Better World plays at Cinemagic on Feb. 20th at 4:45pm.  There is an additional screening at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 21st at 7:15pm.

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