"The world is getting smaller and films get more westernised or Hollywoodised and this was a film for me that made me feel like I was watching [something] from another country, from another perspective. The themes, using some fantasy elements but in a way that I've never really seen before. So I just felt like it was a beautiful strange dream that you don't see very often." Tim Burton, who sat as the head of the jury at Cannes this year, took a swipe at the homogenisation of world cinema before giving the Palme d'Or to the one film in competition that was defiantly individual: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the film is an acquired taste. There were just as many critics in Cannes who left the cinema scratching their heads as there were those proclaiming it a masterpiece. Apichatpong, who trained as a visual artist in the US, has divided audiences with each of the five ethereal feature films that he has made since the start of the century. The 39-year-old Thai director has one of the few truly unique visual styles in cinema today, and as such it was unsurprising that Burton would veer towards Apichatpong, nicknamed "Joe" by film buffs who find his real name slightly too much of a tongue twister.
Boonmee, played by the real-life roof welder Thanapat Saisaymar, is a middle-aged man in need of kidney dialysis who has returned to his favourite childhood haunt in the forest to die. On his deathbed, he recalls his past lives and those of his wife and son. These are presented in mystical reverie that is typical of the director's style. The ghost of Boonmee's wife appears, and his lost son is reincarnated as a forest monkey. Then there is the scene in which a Buddhist monk with a mobile phone visits a karaoke bar. The tales are abstract, and the emphasis is placed on the spiritual rather than the tangible; each frame looks as if it has been painstakingly composed.
This fascination with lives and the spiritual is something that Apichatpong says is ingrained in Thai culture. "I think we are all part of that world, and if you ask any Thai person they will say that they believe in ghosts because that is the way we are raised. For me it's a possibility, but I'm really not super-convinced - until scientific proof of ghosts comes in the future, which I hope it will, because I believe it's natural."
Despite this, the director is not convinced that ghosts exist, even though he claims to have seen an apparition himself: "I saw a woman in Paris. She just appeared near my bed like a movie, floating and transparent, and I asked her in English: 'What are you doing here?' And she faded away, just like in a movie." The story of Boonmee came to Apichatpong while he was working in north-east Thailand on an art project called Primitive. The exhibition opened at the British Film Institute in London three days after the Cannes victory. Standing in the reception hall outside the London exhibition, the director blended into the crowd almost anonymously and looked anything but someone who had just been awarded the most prestigious prize in cinema. Small in stature and dressed casually, he chatted amiably to everyone in attendance.
His short film Phantoms of Nabua showed as part of the exhibition. The film atmospherically starts with lighting striking, creating a fireball that local youths then use as a football. It features a bewitching array of lights and colours and feels apocalyptic. In the 1960s, the village of Nabua was put under military control by the Thai government, which believed it was a haven for communists. Apichatpong worked with local teenagers for the project, wanting to commemorate the regions brutal past.
"This one is part of the Primitive project, which has installations and short films and photography," he says. "The feature film is the last element. The installation is about memories of the north-east, and we concentrate on one village that has a violent past. The communist insurgents in the village were very brutal, so I worked with the teenagers there for several months to play games dressed as soldiers, build a spaceship, doing things like that. So it was like a dream, and when we made a movie, it was no longer about Boonmee, but more about myself. I put a lot of my elements in there, too."
Recalling the movies and comic books that he read in his childhood, he adds: "Originally it was less mysterious because it had a lot of explanation and a lot of voice-over, but in the middle of making the film I changed my mind and decided I needed to have abstraction to leave room for the audience's imagination. Life is about mysteries." As his body of work continues to grow, themes become more apparent. His parents were both doctors, and clinics and hospitals often appear in his films. In Tropical Malady a dog is taken to a clinic. Syndromes and a Century is set in a hospital, and his main characters are based on his parents. Against all the fantasy of Uncle Boonmee, part of the story revolves around the medical equipment that is needed to deal with his kidney complaint.
Apichatpong was in Chicago when he fell in love with cinema. Bizarrely, the first film that made an impression on him was Raiders of the Lost Ark. "It was so fascinating," the director says. "It was for kids, a fantasy; you can't imagine what it looked like to me, a kid from a small town, with all its special effects. That's how I started to like science fiction. I did research with the VHS, looking at more films like that, then European movies. Then I studied in the States."
His Thai upbringing and his American education would seem like the perfect ingredients to turn him into a director making the type of homogenised world cinema that Burton railed against. But it's the background in the arts rather than at film school that the director believes is the vital difference that governs his individual and personal approach. "I think I'm part of a small group of people who are doing very personal films," he says. "Actually, there are more adventurous people out there, especially in European cinema, who are doing very edgy cinema. I think we are part of a minority doing that. But I think that's changing because of the funding. It is very hard to get by and that's why there is this mixture, this combination to survive, with people like Shirin Neshat or Steve McQueen or Philippe Parreno - all these people who tap funding from the arts to try to express themselves."
As Burton wanted the world to know when giving out the Palme d'Or, directors making unusual cinema should be cherished. And Joe always gives us a window into another world, just as Burton likes to do himself.