Cannes Film Festival: 12 Thai films that wowed in Europe

Cannes Film Festival: 12 Thai films that wowed in Europe

As Apichatpong Weerasethakul takes another crack at the Palme d’Or this week, we run through all the Thai films that have competed at the famous festival
Cannes Film Festival
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul on the set of "Uncle Boonmee".


If there’s one name in Thai cinema you need to know it’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. You’ll be reading it a lot this week if you're following the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, on from May 12 to 23.

Apichatpong’s latest film, “Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chaat” (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), is in the main competition for the Cannes Palme d’Or. Inspired by a book written by a Buddhist monk in the town of Khon Kaen, where the Bangkok-born filmmaker grew up, the movie is about a man who believes in reincarnation.

Shot like an old home movie on Super 16mm in locations throughout Northeast Thailand, “Past Lives” weaves together a dying man’s memories with reflections on movies of the past and the changing face of rural Thailand. It’s part of the director’s multi-platform 'Primitive' art project that explores memories of a brutal anti-communist crackdown in 1964 in the northeastern village of Nabua, Nakhon Phanom, which is mostly explored in a massive seven-channel video installation that’s so far been exhibited in Munich, Liverpool and Paris.

It’s the second time Apichatpong has had a film in the main competition at Cannes, and it’ll be his fifth overall appearance on the Croisette. Not including this year, he’s had three movies screened there. In 2008 he served as a judge on the main competition panel that was headed by Sean Penn.

Apichatpong’s history at Cannes is interwoven with the dozen Thai films that have made it to Cannes, which makes for a great list of movies to watch. Here are all 12, listed by year of appearance: 

Tears of the Black Tiger2001: “Tears of the Black Tiger” (Fah Talai Jone), Wisit Sasanatieng

What it’s about: The Bangkokian director drew inspiration on Thai action cinema of the 1950s and 1960s for his colorfully stylish western with fast-draw bandits on horseback, firing rocket-propelled grenades. Among the stars was Sombat Metanee, who acted in hundreds of those old movies. 

Claim to fame: It was the first Thai film to make Cannes' "official selection". It was chosen for the always eclectic and challenging second-tier Un Certain Regard competition. It was then picked up for release in the United States by Miramax under the Weinstein brothers, who had no idea what to do with such a weird movie. They changed the ending and then shelved it until it was salvaged and finally released in its original form in 2007 by Magnolia Pictures. 

Blissfully Yours2002: “Blissfully Yours” (Sud Sanaeha), Apichcatpong Weerasethakul

What it’s about: A Thai factory girl plays hooky from work and goes on an erotic jungle picnic with her Burmese boyfriend, who has a skin condition. They’re later joined by a matronly older woman.

Claim to fame: Won the Un Certain Regard prize, the first of many accolades for Apichatpong in Cannes. It was given a limited release in Thailand, where the movie was censored for its flaking skin and explicit sex scenes.

Monrak Transistor2002: “Monrak Transistor” (Transistor Love Story), Pen-ek Ratanaruang

What it’s about: The sprawling black comedy pays tribute to the Thai luk thung movie musicals of the 1960s as it covers the odyssey of a young man (Supakorn Kitsuwon) who marries his sweetheart (Siriyakorn Pukkavesh), is drafted into the army then goes AWOL so he can pursue his dreams of becoming a singing star.

Claim to fame: It was the first Thai film selected for the non-competitive Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight) showcase and made Pen-ek another Thai name to be reckoned with on the world art-house scene.

Tropical Malady2004: “Tropical Malady” (Sud Pralad), Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What it’s about: A soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) investigating the strange mutilation of cows embarks on a romance with a local boy (Sakda Kaewbuadee) in a small town. A urine-scented hand is licked and there’s a fade to black for a second half of a movie that’s a jungle-based supernatural thriller about a tiger shaman haunting the soldier.

Claim to fame:
It was the first Thai film in the festival's main Palme d'Or competition and won a jury prize -- widely considered third place -- from the panel chaired by Quentin Tarantino.

Graceland2006: “Graceland”, Anocha Suwichakornpong

What it’s about: An Elvis impersonator (Sarawut Martthong) is driven into the countryside by a mysterious woman.

Claim to fame: It was the first Thai entry to be selected for the Cannes Cinefondation short-film program. It was the master’s thesis work for the Columbia University-educated filmmaker, who has since gone on to make her first feature, “Mundane History”, covered by CNNGo last month.

Re-Cycle2006: “Re-Cycle” (Gwai wik), Oxide and Danny Pang

What it’s about: A romance novelist (Angelica Lee) switches to writing a horror story and finds herself plunged into a hellish purgatory of discarded items and souls.

Claim to fame: Competing in the Un Certain Regard line-up, it was yet another stylish thriller from the Hong Kong-born, then-Bangkok-based twin-brother creators of such movies as “The Eye” and “Bangkok Dangerous”.

Ploy2007: “Ploy”, Pen-ek Ratanaruang

What it’s about: A U.S.-based Thai couple (soap-opera star Lalita Panyopas and Pornwut Sarasin, vice chairman of Coca-Cola bottler Thai Namthip) checks into a Bangkok hotel after a long-haul flight. Bleary-eyed, their seven-year marriage is put to the test by a curly headed teenage girl (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) who’s brought back to the room by the husband.

Claim to fame: Was screened in the Director’s Fortnight, made the requisite tour of festivals, was nominated for several awards but is hard to find because it remains unreleased on English-subtitled DVD. Also, it was re-cut for release in Thai cinemas because of sex scenes involving the hotel bartender and a maid (Ananda Everingham and Porntip Papanai), though, oddly, the Thai DVD remains uncensored.

Luminous People2007: “Luminous People”, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What it’s about: A dead father’s ashes are spread during a boat trip on the Mekong.

Claim to fame:
Also screened in the Director’s Fortnight. The 15-minute experimental video has also been displayed as an art installation.

Pleasure Factory2007: “Pleasure Factory” (Kuaile gong hang), Ekachai Uekrongtham

What it’s about: Various stories are woven together in a docudrama about the “pleasure seekers and pleasure providers” in Singapore’s Geylang brothel neighborhood.

Claim to fame: Competed in the Un Certain Regard competition. Singapore-and-Bangkok-based director Ekachai brought together a pan-Asian cast, including Thailand’s Ananda Everingham, Singaporean filmmaker Zihan Loo and veteran Taiwanese actress Yang Kuei-Mei.

Soi Cowboy2008: “Soi Cowboy”, Thomas Clay

What it’s about: The first half, in black and white, observes the life of a portly, Viagra-popping European man in a Bangkok apartment with his tiny pregnant Thai girlfriend, who might have very well worked in the red-light district the film is named for. The second half, in color, is a crime thriller in the Thai countryside, about a conflict between Thai brothers.

Claim to fame: Competed in the Un Certain Regard category, came away with a good buzz and has been released on DVD in Britain, home of the director. It was shot by Apichatpong's frequent cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and produced by Thailand’s De Warrenne Pictures.

Nymph2009: “Nymph” (Nang Mai), Pen-ek Ratanaruang

What it’s about: A photographer (“Peter” Nopachai Jayanama)  and his cheating wife (Girly Berry singer “Gybzy” Wanida Termthanaporn) take their dysfunctional marriage on a camping trip into a spooky forest haunted by a vengeful spirit.

Claim to fame: Competed in the Un Certain Regard where it got mixed reviews, but has since won a couple of awards and continues to mesmerize and dumbfound audiences on the festival circuit. It’s nominated for seven prizes in the Thailand National Film Association Awards, which are set for May 30 in Bangkok.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives2010: “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives," Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What it’s about: Suffering from kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee has gone to the countryside to die, surrounded by his loved ones, among them the ghost of his deceased wife. A long-lost son returns home in a non-human form. Boonmee treks through the jungle with his family to a mysterious hilltop cave, the birthplace of his first life.

Claim to fame: Based on Apichatpong’s two previous wins as Cannes (not to mention his 2008 French knighthood -- a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), pundits are already predicting “Boonmee” to be a winner in the Palme d’Or competition.

Wise Kwai is a Bangkok-based newspaper editor, film fan and blogger.
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