Sunday, May. 23, 2010

Thai Me Up: Uncle Boonmee Wins at Cannes

The ghosts and jungle spirits must have been smiling down on Apichatpong Weerasethakul. At Sunday night's closing ceremony the Thai director's magical-surrealism entry Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives took the Palme d'Or of the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. The jury — headed by U.S. director Tim Burton and including actors Benicio Del Toro and Kate Beckinsale — gave its top prize to this story of an old man suffering from kidney failure who prepares to die and encounters his dead wife, his missing son (who's been transformed into a laser-eyed monkey ghost) and a princess who has sex with a catfish. It was that kind of year at Cannes: films of subpar quality, with a prize selection as weird and confounding as the movies.

The big prizes, at a glance:

Palme d'Or: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Thailand, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Grand Prix: Of Gods and Men, France, directed by Olivier Beauvois
Jury Prize: A Screaming Man, Chad, directed by Mahamet-Saleh Haroun
Best Actor (tie): Javier Bardem in Biutiful, Spain, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Elio Germano, Our Life, Italy, directed by Dante Luchetti
Best Actress: Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy, Italy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Best Director: Mathieu Amalric, On Tour, France
Best Screenplay: Lee Chang Dong, Poetry, South Korea

The Grand Prix, or second place, went to Of Gods and Men, a luminous tale of faith and heroism among Cistercian monks threatened by Algerian terrorists. Chadian director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun won third place, the Jury Prize, for A Screaming Man, about a 50-something pool attendant who loses his job to his son during a civil war, and then hands his son over to the army to fight the rebels. Lee Chang Dong took Best Screenplay for Poetry, in which an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's must rights the wrongs committed by her teenage grandson. It was one of many parent-child films in the competition; as Burton said Sunday, "Cannes this year was showing family films — not of the Disney variety."

The Best Actor award was shared by front-runner Javier Bardem in Biutiful and out-of-nowhere Elio Germano in Our Life. One film was an official favorite from a lauded director (Alejandro González Iñárritu, of Amores Perros and Babel renown), the other a widely reviled social comedy thought to be unworthy of the competition. Yet the actors were playing essentially the same role: a likable fellow, riddled with crises, who works as a middleman for undocumented aliens and tries to raise his children on his own.

Juliette Binoche, the smiling figure on this year's Cannes poster, was named Best Actress for Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. In this made-in-Italy conundrum about a man and a woman who pretend to be — or may already be — husband and wife, Binoche's performance was strained, agitated and way too aggressive. In other words, it is exactly the kind of bad work actors are often rewarded for.

The Best Director prize, which typically goes not to the director of the top film but to a distant runner-up, was taken by Mathieu Amalric, the French actor (he played the villain in the last Bond film, Quantum of Solace, and the motionless hero of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), for the road movie On Tour. A fitful tale of a down-and-out entrepreneur (Amalric) bringing a team of exotic dancers from America to the French sticks, the movie was the first film shown in competition and was quickly forgotten — by everyone but the jury. Accepting his award, Amalric summoned onstage the strippers who played strippers in his film and happily told them, "I didn't know I was a director!" Neither did we, and we saw the movie.

Most Cannes regulars thought that this year's slate of competing movies was weak, in part because some highly regarded entries — the terrorist biopic Carlos, the South African drama Life, Above All, Romania's Tuesday After Christmas and Charles Ferguson's financial-meltdown documentary Inside Job — were not eligible for the jury's prizes. Among some acclaimed movies that were eligible but won nothing were Another Year, a middling drama from Mike Leigh (Palme d'Or winner for Secrets & Lies in 1996), and The Housemaid, a zesty South Korean thriller about a scheming bourgeois family and their working-class victim. Both films are likely to be released in the U.S., where the audience can decide whether these pictures were robbed.

The brightest spotlight shone on Apichatpong, who had been proclaiming his solidarity with Thai Red Shirt protesters while in Cannes. Tonight, though, he was understandably exuberant. "I would like to kiss the jury," he said. "All of you, especially Mr. Burton — I really like your hairstyle." (Burton's coif is a wild tangle, rather like the Uncle Boonmee movie.) Apichatpong's past films include such mysterioso titles as Ghost of Asia, Phantoms of Nabua and The Adventure of Iron Pussy. His work has been caviar to high-minded critics but dog food to international audiences. Uncle Boonmee is certainly his most accessible picture, but we'd be surprised if it stands more than a ghost's chance of connecting with moviegoers beyond the Croisette.

So another Cannes — a so-so Cannes this year — ends. The glamorati will return to their watering holes, the critics to their rat holes, exhausted from the 12-day binge and eager to return in 2011. As we say hopefully at the end of each Festival, A l'année prochaine: Same time next year.