Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cannes 2010: Hero's welcome promised for Apichatpong

Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his win of the Palme d'Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at the Cannes Film Festival was on the front page of most daily newspapers in Bangkok today.

The response to the win in Apichatpong's native land is further gauged in an article by Agence France-Presse, which quotes Culture Minister Teera Slukpetch:

It's brilliant. I deeply hoped that his film would win," said Culture Minister Teera Slukpetch, promising the avant-garde filmmaker a hero's welcome when he returns to Thailand. "This kind of victory is what we really need at this time of crisis."

At the festival, Apichatpong had strong words about the Culture Ministry's censorship. But Teera praised Uncle Boonmee, saying "The film's content is very good, it's about Thai belief and traditions."

The Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee notes that "Uncle Boonmee contains a scene showing a monk engaged in an activity to which the authorities might object. However, the film's credits show that it has received support from the Culture Ministry."

In fact, the Culture Ministry wants to give Apichatpong 3.5 million baht under the Strong Thailand "creative economy" film fund -- money that Apichatpong has said he'll refuse unless the mechanisms of the film fund are reformed and made transparent.

Anyway, Apichatpong's point about censorship wasn't necessarily about his films -- even though his 2006 feature Syndromes and a Century had six scenes snipped by censors, which included a guitar-strumming monk -- it's about filmmakers making movies about Thailand's current political troubles, which the film law might prohibit by invoking the vague and overly broad reasons of "national security".

The AFP article also has "man-on-the-street" interviews with people who never heard of Apichatpong.

And it quotes Songyos Sugmakanan, the director for the GTH studio who's made such mainstream Thai films as the boarding-school thriller Dorm, the teen romance Hormones and the zombie segment of the Phobia 2 horror anthology. He's also chairman of the Thai Film Director Association.

Songyos says the Cannes win won't mean much for the Thai film industry, because Apichatpong doesn't have a big following.

Besides, Apichatpong isn't part of the local film industry.

And with a Cannes win under his belt, he doesn't need to be. Everyone is going to want a piece of Apichatpong now, and he can make a movie just about anywhere he wants, except maybe Thailand.

The Chicago press, where Apichatpong graduated from the city's Art Institute, was full of news from Cannes.

NBC Chicago quoted Cannes jury president Tim Burton about Uncle Boonmee:

I felt it was a beautiful, strange dream you don't see very often. It's the type of cinema I don't usually see and again, that's what this festival is all about. ... You always want to be surprised by films and it did that for most of us."

Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, who's covered the Cannes festival for decades, writes about Uncle Boonmee in his Cannes post-mortem:

I await a second viewing of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's winner of the Palme d'Or, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I felt affection and respect for it, but no passion. But reflect that when you see a subdued and challenging film late in the festival, you come to it dazed with movie overload. I know myself well enough to suspect it will play much better first thing on a Monday morning at a press screening here in Chicago.

Weerasethakul, who says we can call him Joe, has made a film about a man who moves through planes of existence that involve humans, animals, spirits, memories, dreams and fantasies. The man is in the last stages of kidney failure, being cared for by a male nurse in an unexplained house that seems to be surrounded by jungle. His dead wife and son come to visit. Mystical characters materialize and interact with nature. The voices are mostly muted. The forest is enveloping.

There are many theories about the film. I have one that may be completely off the wall. If the dying man is on pain medication, this may be a literal transcription of his hallucinatory dreams. At stages of my own surgeries, I was on a good deal of pain med, and had dreams or fantasies that remain, to this moment, more vivid than many of my actual memories. Even without drugs, he could be moving toward a mental reconciliation of death and nature. Then nothing needs to be explained, not even when his son appears as an ape with glowing red eyes. It is all his mind sorting through available images. The key, I think, is to declare the film to be entirely from his point of view, and not an objective one.

Maybe Ebert could take advice from one of his fellow Stateside critics, The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. In her coverage of Cannes, she writes:

Yet even as it feeds the art houses along with the red-carpet monster (or tries to), Cannes continues to make room for films that fall outside the commercial mainstream. The greatest proof of this is unequivocally Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the single most adventurous film in the competition. It opens with a mysterious and lovely scene of a buffalo shaking loose its tether and roaming deep into the forest, an image that might be from one of Uncle Boonmee’s past lives. It is also a metaphor for how to watch Mr. Weerasethakul’s films: You need to shake loose all your preconceived ideas about how and why movies make meaning and just plunge in.

Or, "Relax!" as Apichatpong advises in an interview with Indie Movies Online:

Open your mind up and just let the images flow. Every film [that I make] I encounter a different, interesting interpretation, and I'm looking forward to it. People are different, you cannot force them, and there's gonna be people who shut off and there's gonna be people who share the sentiment. And for me too, sometimes when I watch a commercial movie, I don't understand.

It's an eclectic, wide-ranging interview, touching on Apichatpong's in-development art project Utopia, which involved putting Brigitte Bardot on the Starship Enterprise as well as the director's own thoughts on reincarnation and the clashes in Bangkok.

Actually lots of interviews with Apichatpong. Too much to digest in one sitting. But to start, here's another one at Huffington Post.

Update: Nanoguy has the text of Apichatpong's thank-you speech.

Update 2: The Nation has an editorial on Apichatpong's Cannes win: "But before the Thai Culture Ministry starts waving the flag in celebration, it should take a minute to recall Apichatpong's comments on the issue of film censorship. After all, strict censorship is obstructive to directors like Apichatpong, discouraging them from exploring innovative themes."

Update 3: The Bangkok Post has a Reuters piece on their editorial page today, quoting Monday's headline in Le Figaro: "'Uncle Boonmee', Palm of Boredom". There's also a nice round-up about Uncle Boonmee at the Arab Times website, "Thai festival winner steeped in spiritualism".

(Reuters photo via Yahoo! News)

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