Critical Mass

Dennis Lim on Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes.

WHEN CANNES JURY PRESIDENT Tim Burton announced Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or on Sunday, the cheers that erupted from some quarters of the normally jaded press corps spoke volumes. Forget impartiality. This was precisely the improbable happy ending (“shocking” and “exhilarating,” as Manohla Dargis described it in the New York Times) that many of us had been rooting for as the increasingly suspenseful awards ceremony progressed. Not just because Uncle Boonmee was the one truly transporting film in a so-so competition. Not just because anyone who has heard Apichatpong speak about his work knows him as a man of uncommon grace and thoughtfulness. And not just because—as Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee noted while addressing Apichatpong at the post-awards news conference—it had been a very tough week for violence-racked Thailand.

To acknowledge that the Uncle Boonmee Palme felt like a personal victory is to acknowledge that contemporary film culture can feel like a battleground, 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. The divide is especially pronounced in an environment like Cannes, which some approach as a beacon of glamour and others as a bastion of high art. This is where journalists with a low tolerance for difficulty and difference have to contend with films that lack stars, production values, or, heaven forfend, a clear narrative, and these scribes often react with frustration and anger (as happened all too predictably this year with Jean-Luc Godard’s new provocation Film Socialisme).

What the press-room cheers drowned out on Sunday was the wariness or even antipathy that some harbor for a figure like Apichatpong—you can detect this in the bemused Cannes wrap-ups by writers who had clearly not bothered to see the film by the Thai guy with the unpronounceable name, and in the metaracist line of reasoning by which his detractors accuse his fans of Orientalism. Apichatpong’s last Cannes entry, Tropical Malady (2004), won the Jury Prize but was booed at its press screening and condemned in Variety as “incomprehensible.” In the final accounting, this was a Palme d’Or that mattered, enormously, for having been awarded to a film that would otherwise have gone unmentioned in most mainstream coverage of the festival. And now that he’s received world cinema’s highest honor (from a jury led by the director of Alice, no less), it might be a little harder to dismiss Apichatpong as an obscure filmmaker with no hope of finding an audience.

I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong’s objections: “Better to leave it all jumbled,” he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me as both his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies. For the receptive viewer, Apichatpong’s sensory immersions induce a state of simultaneous relaxation and watchfulness. This time, despite a few enigmatic detours, there are no midmovie reboots. The title spells out the premise, which crystallizes the sly paradox at the heart of the film. We watch a movie about a terminally ill man (Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, tended to by loved ones, including the ghost of his wife) ever alert to signs of life. A water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a disfigured princess who sees her reflection by an idyllic waterfall, the talking catfish that performs underwater cunnilingus on her, the insects whose chirps and buzzes engulf the nighttime jungle scenes: Might these be Boonmee’s past (or future) incarnations?

An otherworldly fable, Uncle Boonmee often alights on earthly sensations (the taste of raw honey, a lingering embrace) and political realities (the violent history of Thailand’s poor, rural northeast and, at a remove, the current clashes in Bangkok). Much like another high point of the festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, it’s both a radiant ghost story and a tale of cinema itself, concerned with the act of perception and the mysterious conjuring of alternate worlds. Both films are by artists who defy most existing categories. At 101, Oliveira is a man out of time or, perhaps, of multiple times. No less an outsider, equally at ease in a variety of idioms and registers, Apichatpong synthesizes the Western avant-garde tradition with Buddhist thought, animist belief, and Thai pop culture. As Uncle Boonmee confirms, his vision is above all a generous one. In the threat of extinction—a dying man, a disintegrating country, a disappearing medium—Apichatpong sees the possibility of regeneration.