Uncle Boonmee who we still recall 10 years on

Photo still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives









Ten years ago, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the top prize at Cannes making it the first Southeast Asian film to bring home a Palme d'Or from what is touted as the most important film festival in the world. This solidified the Thai film director's stature as an arthouse figure whose meteoric rise to cinematic prominence began ten years earlier, in 2010, with Mysterious Object At Noon premiering at Rotterdam. This was followed by the Cannes Un Certain Regard prize winner Blissfully Yours (2012), the Cannes jury prize recipient Tropical Malady (2004), and Syndromes And A Century (2006) which premiered at Venice.

His victory marked a renewed interest in Southeast Asian cinema in the international, albeit Eurocentric, film festival scene whose programming for years have limited their Asian selection to films from China and Japan. This, however, does not diminish the achievement of other Southeast filmmakers before Apichatpong's feat at Cannes– from Tran Anh Hung's debut film The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) winning the Camera d'Or win at Cannes to his Golden Lion triumph at Venice for Cyclo (1995), Garin Nugroho's Leaf On A Pillow (1998) competiting at Cannes Un Certain Regard section, Rithy Panh's  S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) winning the Prix Francois Chalais at Cannes, Yasmin Ahmad's lovable Mukhsin (2007) earning a special mention at Berlin's General Kplus section, the Orrizonti Prize win for Lav Diaz' Melancholia (2008) at Venice, Brillante Mendoza best director nod at Cannes for Kinatay (2009), to Pepe Diokno's bagging the Orrizonti Prize and Luigi De Laurentiis - Lion of the Future Prize for Engkwentro (Clash, 2009) at Venice. But it is Uncle Boonmee's critical success that has the most profound impact on Southeast Asian cinema that would reverberate a decade on. Not necessarily for a good reason. 



It became a bane for many filmmakers in the region after the Western (again, Eurocentric) film establishment set Uncle Boonmee as the canon for the Southeast Asian magic realist, spiritual, supernaturalist, or speculative cinema, however one may want to call it. Many elements that are present in Apichatpong's opus inhabit the vast landscape of Southeast Asian consciousness and experience, from ghosts, spirits, hybrid creatures, elementals, and living humans. Moreover, there is a peculiar relationship between time and space that can be flattened or bent, the duality of myth and reality which can be crossed at will, and whose difference an immaterial point of discussion. It's just is. When tropes of arthouse cinema blending with folklore, myth and superstition are explored in succeeding films, critics and programmers have used Uncle Boonmee as a point of reference, a sort of aesthetic and narrative monopoly. In so doing, many films have been put at a disadvantage, denying them fair appraisal based on their own artistic merits. Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Jungle Love (2012) suffered from this juxtaposition. Set in a forest, the characters navigate both time and space not only in the physical sense but also in the metaphysical plane. There is a cave and a river, and while there is an absence of coitus between a princess and a catfish, the forest comes alive and engages in sex with a wandering soldier. The comparison harmed Jungle Love's longevity in the film festival circuit, unable to be buoyed by Sanchez's rising reputation as an arthouse film director after his film Sewer won the top prizes at Jeonju in 2009. 

Veering away from this new and most sudden canon, any film can be dismissed as lacking in authenticity, or consisting of derived magic realism that is not native to the region. This overlooks the fact that  Southeast Asia, while it can treated as one cultural, economic, or geopolitical block, also possesses diverse practices, beliefs and customs that have national or local specificity. Apichatpong, for instance, utilized his profound Buddhist worldview to create an astonishing cinematic work in Uncle Boonmee. Meanwhile, half of the population of Southeast Asia is Muslim. The Islamic ethos, merging with local customs, is articulated in Ismail Basbeth's Another Trip To The Moon (2015), while ontological mystery surrounds Kamila Andini's The Seen And Unseen (2017). Tabloid journalism has also spawned bizarre stories that have inspired such films as Adolf Alix's Fable of the Fish (2011). 



But the blame does not entirely fall on the critical establishment for sins in film taxonomy. Many of the films from Southeast Asia that have made it to the big international festivals are products of international co-production efforts. The creation of tropes, normative standards even formulas start here. When a European distributor takes on an Asian product, it offers a kind of certification that festivals take as a sign of approval. The success of Uncle Boonmee is not a product of sheer luck and should not come as a surprise to anyone. Early on, Apichatpong had slowly and deliberately built his position, with his earlier films already backed by European producers, that helped him secure a foothold in the international festivals. It was only a matter of time before he emerged with resounding victory.  

Undeniably, the triumph of Uncle Boonmee at Cannes and the resulting spotlight on Southeast Asian cinema continue to be a source of pride and inspiration. Apichatpong has influenced a new generation of filmmakers in his country from Anucha Boonyawatana to Phuttiphong Aroonpheng who have also succeeded in the festival scene. His influence has extended to filmmakers across the Thai national borders as well. But the attention to the region's cinema also brings a cautionary tale. Filmmakers are increasingly detached from the genuine exploration of human experience in their works, and who are becoming animated only by the strong desire to be programmed in international film festivals at whatever cost. As a result, the emergence of new cinematic voices that can lend unique perspectives of life in the region are wanting, works produced are compromised and rewritten to follow a set of standard to ensure a red carpet premiere at Cannes, Venice or Berlin. They have become the princess in Uncle Boonmee desperately seeking approval. In the end, filmmakers must be ready to enter the cave and not expect the walls to shimmer.  


– Gutierrez Mangansakan II

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