The 63rd Cannes Film Festival drew to a close with a genuine surprise as Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul walked away with the coveted Palme d’Or prize for his surreal drama Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past Lives (2010). Gliding over challenges from favourites Xavier Beauvois, winner of the Grand Prix for his Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) and Mike Leigh’s latest Another Year, Weerasethakul’s dream-like film was singled out by the Cannes Jury, headed by US director Tim Burton, for bringing a new Eastern perspective on death to their understanding.
In a festival whose line up was judged to be somewhat lacklustre by critics, it was refreshing to see a film which so readily challenges Western conceptions of mortality and memory allowed its time in the spotlight, particularly when the proceedings were bookended by the Hollywood monoliths of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, overbearing in their presence but running out of competition.
Uncle Boonmee is part of Weerasethakul’s intriguing multi-platform project entitled ‘Primitive’, which contemplates the interplay between the concepts of remembrance and extinction, and whose other parts include video installations (currently at the BFI), a book, a short film, a music video and online art.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in northeast Thailand, the narrative focuses on the eponymous Boonmee (Thanapat Saisamaymar, a roof welder by trade), a man dying from kidney failure who returns to the countryside of his childhood he holds to be the spiritual landscape of his past lives. Cared for by a nurse and living relatives, Boonmee is visited by the ghosts of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) and son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), reincarnated as a simian forest spirit, who guide him toward relinquishing his grip on life and accepting death.
The film has been read as a mystical parable on the solace to be found in the spiritual when faced with the bleakest of realities, indeed, Weerasethakul has stated that, though “not a political film”, he hopes Boonmee might give Thailand “some kind of hope” amidst the political turmoil created by the current “confrontation of different ideologies”.
Critical perspectives after the prize giving ceremony differed. In France, La Parisien applauded the “Palme prize for the strange” while Le Figaro declared the film “boring, incomprehensible and hallucinatory”; in London, The Times found the viewing experience “fantastic, intersecting landscape and memory”; whereas the Spanish El Pais judged the film to be “absurd” and “soporific”.
Nevertheless, despite always challenging, indeed dividing, the critics, Weerasethakul has previously enjoyed success at Cannes with his equally unconventional Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours), Un Certain Regard winner 2002, and Sud pralad (Tropic Malady), the 2004 Jury Prize winner.
Whether the bizarre phantasmagoric tale created by Weerasethakul will be readily embraced by a large audience is perhaps beside the point. What the Palme d’Or victory will hopefully enable is a wider distribution for a film that any self-respecting cinephile will wish to open their mind to and make their own decision.