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Uncle Boonmee - Laurels at Cannes and battles at home
« on: September 15, 2010, 09:47:23 PM »
Laurels at Cannes and battles at home

It was the first time a Thai director had won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, yet Apichatpong Weerasethakul was greeted back home with ambivalence by many and attacks by his fiercest critics, writes THOMAS FULLER

THE red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival is a world apart from the villages of Thailand, but Apichatpong Weerasethakul glides effortlessly between the two.

Apichatpong stunned the movie world in May by winning the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes for his latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

He will take the picture to the New York Film Festival, which begins on Sept 24, but his first stop on a global tour to promote the film was in his hometown, Khon Kaen, a small city in Thailand's rice-growing and poor northeastern plateau.

Uncle Boonmee, an unconventional, impressionistic film about a dying man and his encounters with ghosts, was filmed in the jungles and farmland of northeastern Thailand using amateur actors on a budget of less than US$700,000 (RM2.2 million).

Apichatpong, who has won two other awards at Cannes for previous films, is somewhat polarising as a filmmaker.

He has a small but loyal international base of fans who see his work as an innovative counterpoint to what they condemn as Hollywood standardisation.

"He's one of the very few directors who can make films that speak to the senses," said Anocha Suwichakornpong, an award-winning Thai director who is part of a new wave of independent filmmakers in Thailand.

"If I go in a cinema and watch his films, it doesn't matter what the film is about. It's a sensory experience."

Director Tim Burton, the head of the jury that awarded the Palme d'Or to Uncle Boonmee, called the film a "beautiful, strange dream".

Others simply found it strange. Or confusing.

The French newspaper Le Figaro described it as "impenetrable and slow" and skewered some of its more peculiar scenes: in one, Uncle Boonmee's son returns from the dead and joins him at the dinner table as a monkey with glowing red eyes; in another, a princess appears to copulate with a fish.

The victory at Cannes was the first time a Thai director had won the Palme d'Or, but Apichatpong, who turned 40 in July, was greeted back home with ambivalence by many and attacks by his fiercest critics.

He is also a polarising figure in Thailand, although not as much for his films, which until recently were barely known among the general public, as for his championing of anti-government protesters and his biting critique of the political establishment.

"You'd better stay silent because when you talk, it shows your stupidity," said one typical posting of about 550 in July on, the website of a Thai-language newspaper that was staunchly against the most recent round of anti-government protests.

The unrest in Thailand is complex, but one of its main sources has been a struggle for political power between Apichatpong's childhood region and a royalist, well-entrenched elite in Bangkok.

Uncle Boonmee does not come across as a political film. Yet Apichatpong's empathy for northeastern Thais, who have traditionally been labourers and farmers, shines through.

The film's characters disparage big-city life and speak a dialect close to the Lao language, which is not spoken by people born and raised in Bangkok.

To the outside world, Uncle Boonmee is a Thai film, but viewers in Bangkok relied on Thai subtitles to understand the northeastern vernacular.

The Bangkok establishment has for decades viewed people from the northeast, or Isaan as the region is known, as uncouth but generally hard-working.

Apichatpong, who grew up next to the hospital in Khon Kaen where his parents worked as doctors, said he shot the film there because he was trying to recapture the faces and rugged lifestyles of the people he remembered meeting during his youth.

In an interview on the campus of the university in Khon Kaen, where Apichatpong studied architecture (a profession he abandoned for filmmaking), he said his ethnic roots were Chinese, and that both of his parents had graduated from elite universities in Bangkok before moving to the northeast.

Despite this pedigree, Apichatpong said he remembered a keen sense of inferiority when he travelled to Bangkok.

"When you said you were from Khon Kaen, they would laugh at you," he said. "I tried to hide where I came from. This was not long ago -- 20 years ago."

His victory at Cannes came so soon after a crackdown in Bangkok on anti-government protesters, many of them from the northeast, that it seemed to become part of the country's political narrative.

On May 19, the Thai military swept protesters out from their entrenched positions in central Bangkok. The crackdown was the climax of two months of tensions and fighting in Bangkok that left about 90 people dead and thousands injured, a vast majority of them protesters.

Apichatpong left this tumult for the French Riviera, barely managing to obtain his visa from European consular officials, who were closing their offices because of the spreading violence.

On May 23, as defeated and humiliated protesters returned to their villages, Uncle Boonmee won the Palme d'Or.

Apichatpong described the protests as an "uprising of the poor". The perception of Thailand as a gentle, harmonious society was wrong, he said.

"Thailand is violent and full of inequality."

These kind of statements infuriate monarchists in Thailand, who say the protests had nothing to do with income inequality and were orchestrated by Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon removed as prime minister by the military in 2006.

Apichatpong's critics have used the anonymity of the Internet to suggest that he would be better off dead, a statement no one takes lightly in Thailand these days, after several high-profile murders and assassination attempts on political figures.

All of this bitterness clearly troubles Apichatpong, who is soft-spoken, even when outspoken. He said he was worried about the power of the military in Thailand, the government's censorship campaigns after the May crackdown and the "frustration and anger" of young people in the countryside who lacked opportunities.

Apichatpong studied film in Chicago and once earned a stipend as an artist-in-residence in Paris. But events in Thailand, at once troubling and riveting, are keeping his focus on his native land.

"I wouldn't miss the chance," he said, "to witness what is going to happen." -- NYT

Cannes film festival From 12 to 23 may 2010

Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat - Uncle Boonmee... | Trailer Cannes 2010 IN COMPETITION