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Will Cannes award make Apichatpong Weerasethakul a household name?

'Uncle Boonmee' won the festival's top prize, but time will tell if viewers will flock to the Thai director's work.

March 04, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk in "Uncle Boonmee."
Thanapat Saisaymar, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk in "Uncle Boonmee." (Strand Releasing )

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was already a lauded figure on the world cinema stage when last year he stood beaming in a white dinner jacket and bow tie to accept the Cannes Film Festival's top prize for his quizzical, mystical "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives."

The Bangkok-based auteur had amassed a loyal critical following with films regarded as meditative and challenging but also deep and rewarding, including his feature debut, 2000's "Mysterious Object at Noon," and 2006's "Syndromes and a Century." But with its release Friday in Los Angeles, "Uncle Boonmee" might help Weerasethakul, 40, finally reach a broader movie-going audience.

Not that the writer-director has compromised his vision to create something more accessible to the mainstream. "Uncle Boonmee" centers on a man in a remote jungle village who is dying from kidney failure and is visited by family members and the ghost of his dead wife.

The story veers into a series of dreamy digressions as Boonmee approaches death — including "monkey ghost" creatures with furry bodies and red-glowing eyes or a princess who has unusual congress with a catfish — all building toward something gently transcendent.

"This film is a tribute to cinema," Weerasethakul said recently from Thailand of the cosmic phantasm of styles in "Uncle Boonmee" and the film's boldly expansive storytelling.

"I think cinema itself is a time machine," he added. "So I just take from my memory bank of cinema I grew up with from the '70s and early '80s and television, comic books, all these things I might forget. I didn't go back and look at them but just tried to remember the mood. I imagine what I see and translate it."

Raised in northeastern Thailand — where "Uncle Boonmee" is set — and living in Bangkok, Weerasethakul attended art school in Chicago in the 1990s. It was there that he picked up his anglicized nickname of "Joe," which still often assists tongue-tied Western journalists.

He's been the frequent subject of editorials and essays among the film cognoscenti, many of whom weighed in before and after his Palme d'Or victory, speculating on Weerasethakul's position within the larger landscape of current cinema.

"To acknowledge that the 'Uncle Boonmee' Palme felt like a personal victory is to acknowledge that contemporary film culture can feel like a battleground," wrote critic Dennis Lim in Artforum, "with, broadly speaking, the cinephiles on one side and the populists on the other – or, to use the insults often preferred by both camps, the elitists and the philistines."

"'Uncle Boonmee' seems to me the litmus test of the best of this kind of cinema," noted Nick James, editor of British film magazine Sight & Sound, in an e-mail. "One can have infinite patience in the cinema as long you are confident that there will be aesthetically sublime moments, and Apichatpong always delivers on that. 'Uncle Boonmee' is everything this debate is about. It is a terrific film, and a unique experience."

For his part, Weerasethakul is trying to maintain perspective on his growing global acclaim while also finding encouragement in the potential for building his audience. "It's great in a way, it's like you have new friends," Weerasethakul said of the attention that has built from film to film. "It helps me to accept the reality that you cannot please everyone, so you'd rather just be yourself. I think along the timeline maybe people got familiar with me. Each film is like a person, it has a personality."

"Uncle Boonmee" has become Weerasethakul's biggest hit in Thailand, spurred on by local curiosity over the prize from Cannes. Strand Releasing, the film's American distributor, commissioned popular comic artist Chris Ware to create a whimsically psychedelic poster for the movie, hoping to bolster interest stateside.

Asked if there was anything newcomers should know in advance, Weerasethakul seemed eager to make the experience of watching his work sound as unforbidding as possible.

"I think I would say, don't take it seriously," Weerasethakul said. "I think in cinema, people make things too complicated. You can approach it like a baby, to just marvel that the images can move. When you have expectations from cultural training and all this, mainstream movies, it's restrictive in a way. So you just need to let yourself flow, and for me I always say you can even sleep in my movie and wake up and it's OK. You can patch things up later."

As his star has risen at home and abroad, the question arises: Just who is he making films for — a native Thai audience or the coterie of international critics and programmers who have celebrated his work?

"It's for me," he said, "I'm the audience."

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