Friday, December 31, 2010

Apichatpong creates waves in Kerala, Thai films popular in Goa

Lekha Shankar is in India, where she attended Goa's International Film Festival of India, which screened Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Nithiwat Tharatorn's Dear Galileo. Lekha then headed down to the Kerala International Film Festival, which held a retrospective on Apichatpong. The Thai director took a well-deserved vacation and shared the spotlight with another world-cinema luminary, Werner Herzog.

Story and photos by Lekha J Shankar in Thiruvanthapuram and Goa

Thai director "Joe" Apichatpong Weerasethakul was a star attraction of the Kerala International Film Festival, held at Thiruvanthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, in the southernmost tip of India. Five of his films were screened at a festival noted for its movie-literate audiences.

Joe also served on the international competition jury.

The only other filmmaker who attracted more attention than Joe at the festival was German director Werner Herzog, who had five of his movies screened.

The two directors met at a dinner organised by the Goethe Institute, and Herzog congratulated Joe for having won the Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and raising the image of his country.

Another director who was happy to meet Joe, was French director Olivier Assayas, who said he was a great admirer of his works.

Joe also met Julianne Lorenze, the widow of another legendary German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She attentively listened to a stage interview with the Thai director, after which she told Joe that Fassbinder had the same theories on filmmaking as him, as well as a strong interest in Buddhism, which she shared.

During the stage interview, conducted by this writer, Joe confessed that he had not expected to win the top award at Cannes, but after that he had revelled in his global travels.

The countries and cities he visited this year were as varied as Japan, South Korea, Buenos Aires, Greece and London.

"No, it was not a pressure," he stated. "It was hectic, but enjoyable. After all, I knew that my time at the top, was limited."

Joe was asked various questions about his filmmaking style – his subjects, methods, multi-level associations, non-professional cast, fund acquisition, censorship problems, the audience he catered to and the film festivals that made him famous.

The soft-spoken but strong-minded director was frank and articulate.

"It has not got easier getting funds for my films," said Joe. "On the other hand, it's got a lot more competitive."

He confessed how he had refunded money to a film-goer who had complained he'd felt "cheated" by watching Joe's film!

"Don't use your brain, when you see my films," he urged his audience while presenting Uncle Boonmee. "Just relax, and allow the images to take over you."

Judging by the cinephiles who followed him throughout the festival, the director's images sure seemed to have "taken them over".

Joe met legendary Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan and was keen to know more about his documentaries on Indian dance, which he said could be incorporated in a possible dance-project he would do in the UK.

The Thai director was most struck by the passion for cinema in India, which he said he had not witnessed in many countries.

Joe did various media interviews, watched many films, but also found time to relax in the swimming pool of the Taj Vivanta hotel where he stayed, meander around the city and visit the exotic Tapovan resort at the Kovalam beach, where he enjoyed a traditional ayurvedic massage and spicy seafood meal.

He also went shopping, to buy the local lungis (sarongs), which totally fascinated him. He planned to wear them during his two-week holiday in Kerala.

The two-week tour included a houseboat ride on the famed backwaters of Kerala, the hillscapes of Wyanad, the temple-town of Trichur, and New Year in the old-world "Fort" area of Cochin town.

With homestay accommodation and scenic locations, meen (fish) curries and biryanis, Joe seemed to be enjoying his much-needed year-end break in Kerala, a place described by National Geographic as “God's Own Country.”

When I last heard from him, he was moving from a quiet "ghost town" to a noisy town, and was all set to watch a "velichapad" performer in a famed temple – a dancer who performs after being "possessed" by the temple deity.

Earlier, Uncle Boonmee had created waves at the country's biggest film festival, held in the beach town of Goa, the International Film Festival of India.

Joe could not attend the festival due to his commitments at other festivals, but when the film print did not arrive in Goa on time, because of a goof up by the courier company, the Thai director generously lent his personal print to the festival, which was much appreciated by Indian cinephiles.

The 9.30am screening at the festival's biggest Kala Bhavan auditorium was well-attended by a large and curious audience who had many questions to ask this writer after the screening.

Festival director Shankar Mohan said he was knocked out by the "stunning" film.

Another Thai film that was screened at the festival was Dear Galileo by young director Nithiwat Tharathorn of Fan Chan fame.

The road movie set in Europe attracted the interest of both young and old, and the director was warmly greeted by all of them at the end of the screening.

Nithiwat, who has been to various festivals with the film, including Berlin and Yokohama, was excited to visit India for the first time, especially the beach-town of Goa, and seemed to enjoy everything about it, from the beer to the beaches to the parties – and the many "good" movies.

He was also excited to meet many Indian film-folk from Bollywood mogul Subhash Ghai to award-winning indie director Gautam Ghosh.

On the jury of India’s biggest film-festival was Frenchman Olivier Pere, the new artistic director of the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. It turns out he's an avid follower of Thai cinema.

Pere, who formerly headed the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes festival, said he was keen not only to screen more Thai films at his Locarno but possibly also to hold an Open Doors script-writing session for young talents. This year, Central Asia participated in the Open Doors session, and next year was to be India's turn.

Who knows, Thailand could possibly be the country in focus in 2012.

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