Friday, September 10, 2010

Apichatpong-a-rama: Uncle Boonmee to Oscars, 'flop' in France, gala in London

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึก ชาติ, ) will be Thailand's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.

That's the news according to the Thai government's Public Relations Department.

I think it's the best shot Thailand has had in a long time to finally have its first Oscar-nominated film, though it'll probably still be a long-shot to win.

Apichatpong, in France to promote the theatrical release of Boonmee, "is reportedly joyous about the selection", says the National News Bureau of Thailand.

The submission of Thai films to the Oscars is made by a committee from the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand (FNFAT). This year the nine-member panel was chaired by Nakorn Weeraprawat and included prominent industry figure Prachya Pinkaew and actor Yodchai Meksuwan.

In past years, the films submitted have come from Thailand's major movie studios, with indie films not really considered.

Under the rules, the films must have played in a commercial theater run for at least seven days, a requirement that indie films,
which until recent years were mainly limited to film festivals, would have struggled to meet.

Hot after its Cannes win, Uncle Boonmee packed in audiences throughout June and July at Bangkok's plush SFX the Emporium cinema, and has had limited engagements at the SF chain's other cinemas, including those upcountry.

It was a surprise move by Apichatpong, Bioscope magazine and SF cinemas to organize the Uncle Boonmee screenings so quickly after Cannes. In past years, it would take several months or even years for Apichatpong's films to finally show in Thailand after their run of the festival circuit. His 2003 Un Certain Regard winner Blissfully Yours attracted relatively little buzz when it screened at the now-burned-down Siam Theatre. And his 2006 feature Syndromes and a Century didn't screen in Bangkok until two years after it was made, and only after it had been chopped to bits by overly sensitive censors.

It's also a remarkable move by FNFAT to submit Uncle Boonmee, and I think it's the right choice. Had the Palme d'Or winner not been submitted, Thailand would have looked pretty stupid. This is a no-brainer chance for Thailand to look smart.

Boonmee's submission represents the growing acceptance by Thai film industry heavyweights and cultural authorities of the indie filmmakers.

In 2009, the FNFAT gave five of its Subhanahongsa Awards – the Thai equivalent of the Oscar – to indie director Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town, after that quiet romantic drama had played in a one-month run that was similar to Uncle Boonmee's.

Wonderful Town was screened as part of the Director's Screen Project initiated in 2008 by indie distribution and production company Extra Virgin, with SF cinemas.

This year, the Director's Screen Project has shown Anocha Suwichakornpong's Mundane History, which recently wrapped up a one-month run to make way for a four-week screening of Uruphong Raksasad's Agrarian Utopia. Both have done well on the festival circuit and along with Boonmee could well be due for more accolades next year when FNFAT hands out its Subhanahongsa Awards.

However, the success of Uncle Boonmee at home makes it easy to forget how polarizing Apichatpong's films can be.

The toast of the Cannes Film Festival opened in French cinemas a week ago, and the largely parochial Parisian critics roundly panned Oncle Boonmee, celui qui se souvient de ses vies antérieure.

Today, Agence France-Presse issued a report that Boonmee had "flopped" at the box office, saying it "failed to make it into the top 10 most-seen films, making it the worst showing for a Cannes winner in the past decade", and citing Le Film Francais as the source.

It's a grossly misleading report, which lumps little Uncle Boonmee in with Hollywood heavyweights like Salt, Piranha 3D and Inception and fails to take into account the number of screens the movies are playing on.

Taking a look at Allocine's September 1 box-office chart, Uncle Boonmee is at No. 15. It had 45,115 admissions and was showing on 84 screens.

Crunching those numbers, Boonmee had 537 viewers per screen, compared to 477 pairs of eyeballs per screen for the No. 3 Inception, which was showing in 545 places and had 202,719 admissions.

I'm not going to wear out my number pad going through all the entries, but according to my rough calculations, Uncle Boonmee was in third place behind Angelina Jolie's Salt and the wonderfully bloody Piranha 3D in terms of per-capita attendance.

As much flack as Boonmee is getting from the French press, the film is still being celebrated elsewhere.

It's at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, playing in the Masters program with Apichatpong among the festival's Mavericks, giving master classes.

And, in revealing its line-up, the London Film Festival has Boonmee among its gala premieres and special screenings, and among a rich line-up of Asian films.

The Guardian, which had earlier compiled the negative French press reviews, lists Uncle Boonmee among its picks for the London fest, which runs from October 13 to 28.

(Big thanks to Jason Gray, Wildgrounds, Lorna Tee and MaewNam for contributing to this report.)


  1. Glad to see that Apichatpong is finally receiving the recognition he deserves, I know this film probably won't get an oscar nominee but at least it's a step forward. Btw, do you have any news when this will come out in dvd in thailand? I have to wait until 2011 to see this in theaters here, so I think I'll be better off buying an import dvd from thailand.

  2. At this time, I don't know about the Thai DVD release of Uncle Boonmee. The theatrical release in Thailand was handled by Joei's production company, in collaboration with Bioscope and SF cinemas. A DVD release is another matter entirely, and I don't know who would handle that.


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