The Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a surprise winner of the Palme D'or last night, as the Cannes Film Festival closed. It is the first Asian winner of the prize since Abbas Kiarostami shared it with Japanese film-maker Shohei Imamura in 1997. And the veteran South Korean director Hong Sangsoo on Saturday won the prestigious "Un Certain Regard" sidebar prize for Hahaha.
The Asian clean sweep took most Cannes watchers by surprise. The Grand Prix, effectively the runner-up, went to Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men, his surprisingly gripping dramatisation of a true story: the 1996 deaths of French Cistercian monks kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists.
Uncle Boonmee, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, traces the dreamlike final days of a man dying of kidney failure as the ghost of his dead wife returns to tend him, and his long-lost son comes home in the form of an ape.
There was little surprise that Juliette Binoche was named best actress for her role as the enigmatically named She in Abbas Kiarostami's A Certified Copy. Critics were united in their praise of her stunning performance, though she told journalists this week that the trickiest part of the role had been filming on Tuscan cobbles wearing heels. Director Kiarostami earned the Palme d'Or in 1997 with Taste of Cherry. Spain's Javier Bardem was joint winner of the best actor accolade for playing a corrupt policeman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He appears in Biutiful, by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, best known for Babel and 21 Grams. Bardem shared the prize with Italian actor Elio Germano for La Nostra Vita.
Other awards at the ceremony included the jury prize to Chad film maker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and his third film, A Screaming Man. US actor Kirsten Dunst presented the best director prize to Mathieu Amalric for On Tour. The Frenchman is better known as an actor – the Bond villain in Quantum of Solace, for example, or The Diving Bell and The Butterfly – and On Tour, about Parisien burlesque performers, is his fourth film. South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's Poetry took the best screenplay prize.
Weerasethakul, who has won other prizes in Cannes before, said during the festival that his thoughts were mainly on the violent scenes in Bangkok, where Red Shirt protesters have clashed with government forces, leaving at least 85 people dead.
The Thai movie had been considered a dark horse for the top prize. Many were surprised that British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach missed out, having been among the favourites for honours on the French Riviera. Sweeney Todd director Tim Burton headed the jury which picked the hypnotic Thai film from the 19 in the competition.
Many critics had been underwhelmed by this year's nominations. Before the Festival opened, chief programmer Thierry Fremeaux had described it as a "difficult" year. Many of the more acclaimed works, including the 5-hour biopic Carlos and the South Africa drama Life, After All, had been deemed unsuitable for the main competition and were thus ineligible for the prizes.
Of the 19 under consideration, Mike Leigh's Another Year, starring Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville, was the stand-out for many. Leigh won the Palme d'Or for Secrets and Lies in 1996, and has become one of the UK's most cherished film-makers with works including Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky and Career Girls.
Ken Loach returned to the competition four years after winning the festival's top accolade for The Wind that Shakes the Barley. His new movie, Route Irish, is a revenge drama based around the deployment of private security contractors in Iraq.
Joining Tim Burton on the nine-member jury were actors Kate Beckinsale and Benicio Del Toro and director Shekhar Kapur.