B efore Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was almost unheard of. His previous features Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours had barely been screened beyond film festivals and the odd arthouse cinema. What a difference winning the Palme d’Or can make. Suddenly the spotlight has fallen on this unique filmmaker, bringing to light some of the most exciting and inventive contemporary cinema seen for a long time.

Uncle Boonmee tells the story of a young man who accompanies an elderly woman to see her terminally ill brother-in-law, where they encounter the spirit of his dead wife. It is released in cinemas this month, giving audiences the chance to experience what is without doubt a worthy recipient of the film world’s most highly respected prize, as well as one of the most distinctive Palme d’Or winners in recent years. There is nothing quite like the cinematic worlds created by Weerasethakul. The closest comparison is that of a dream world, where time and space are dislocated, memories entwine with fiction, stories unfold in a mysterious and unstructured manner and strange beasts and spirits exist alongside humans. What is most memorable about Weerasethakul’s films, however, is the atmosphere: surreal and mysterious yet peaceful and quiet, often conveyed through slow, subtle camera movements and sparse dialogue.


Uncle Boonmee presents a slice of cinema culture from a country whose films rarely reach our screens. In fact it is the first non-Western film to win the Palme d’Or in over ten years. And what a delight: there’s a fusion of Buddhism, stunning Thai landscapes and one surreal scene of a catfish seducing a young princess (apparently a tribute to old Thai films). The film also contains subtle references to the political situation in Weerasethakul’s home country: it was made as part of a larger, cross- platform project called Primitive, which explores the border town of Nabua in Northern Thailand, a place with a long and troubled political history. Yet of those elements it is the Buddhist sensibility that feels most strongly imbued in the director’s work. As the title implies, reincarnation is a prominent theme and underlying the simple narrative is the idea that everything is part of a greater cycle, constantly changing and evolving.

This is an unhurried cinema, one that exists in opposition to the action- packed films of Hollywood. Uncle Boonmee is a film to be submerged in, to soak up and to be enthralled by. Yet above all it is a film that shows distinct creative vision; it is unlike anything else you will see. For many it was a surprise choice for this year’s Palme d’Or but with Tim Burton as head of the Festival Jury, and considering his own passion for surrealism and alternate worlds, it was perhaps not such an unlikely contender after all. No doubt Burton was thrilled to be able to open the door for the world to experience Weerasethakul’s unique cinematic universe.



The Lost Weekend (1939) Billy Wilder’s brilliant comic study of alcoholism took the precursor to the Palme d’Or, the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film. 20 THE LIST 18 Nov–2 Dec 2010

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The Leopard (1963) Luchino Visconti out epics all the competition with this adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s tale of Sicilian aristocracy in decline. Blow Up (1967) Michelangelo Antonioni’s voguish portrait of fashion, media, sex and murder in Swinging London is cooler than an Ossie Clark dress.

Taxi Driver (1976) Dissent, madness and vigilante politics in Vietnam War-era New York won Martin Scorsese a gong and notoriety.