Thailand hails welcome victory at Cannes film festival

Thailand on Monday hailed Apichatpong Weerasethakul's surprise win at the Cannes film festival as a much-needed boost for a nation that has been rocked by a deadly political crisis.

"It's brilliant. I deeply hoped that his film would win," said Culture Minister Teera Slukpetch, promising the avant garde film-maker a hero's welcome when he returns to Thailand.

"This kind of victory is what we really need at this time of crisis," he said, as the kingdom emerged from the worst civil unrest in modern history which has left 86 people dead and 1,900 injured since March.

Anti-government protesters were forcibly evicted last week from their protest encampment in the heart of Bangkok, ending two months of street rallies punctuated by deadly clashes between "Red Shirts" and security forces.

Apichatpong, 39, works outside the confines of Thailand's action-film studio system to make movies such as his victorious "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", a dreamlike reincarnation tale.

The two-hour movie tells the story of a dying man, Boonmee, who meets spirits of the dead. Among the surprises, his son appears as a giant monkey and an old-world princess has watery sex with a talking catfish.

Apichatpong said after receiving the award from festival jury president Tim Burton that he wanted to thank "the spirits in Thailand that surrounded us" while making the film.

Winning the top prize, the Palme d'Or, was "like another world for me... this is surreal," he said.

The director last week denounced his country's tough censorship rules, but the culture minister was full of praise for his work and said the government had given financial support for the movie's post-production.

"The film's content is very good, it's about Thai belief and traditions," he said.

Songyos Sugmakanan, chairman of the Thai Film Directors' Association, said the morale-boosting impact of Apichartpong's win could be limited because he does not have a big following in his home country.

"But for me as a director, as a Thai person, I am very glad. His award has cheered my heart after feeling so sad in the past few weeks over what has been going on in Thailand," he told AFP.

Thai cinema-goers however mostly prefer Western blockbusters, action flicks and Asian horror films, and Apichatpong is better known in international arthouse circles than he is in his home country.

Ordinary citizens interviewed in Bangkok Monday, where the city was getting back to business after the mayhem of last week, were thrilled at the news of the honour - even if many had never had heard of Apichatpong before.

"Apitchatpong? I don't know him. Oh - he won a prize? I'm happy because he is Thai!" said Pawana Vejanurak, a suited 55-year-old woman on her way to work at a finance company.

Nattamon Issaradharm, a 56-year-old retiree who had heard of the film-maker but not seen any of his work, said the win was "good news" and would help repair Thailand's battered international reputation.

"After last week, this will help people boost their morale and bring unity," he said. "It shows young people we can do anything if we want to, that if we aim to develop the country, everything is possible."

Peech Pimarnpran, a trendily dressed 21-year-old student and a fan of Apichartpong's films, was thrilled at the recognition but conceded he might never find a mainstream audience.

"He is a good movie-maker because he uses no professional actors, it looks real, he can present real life and he shows how people can survive in Thai society," he said.

"He has his own style, it is quite serious, it's not commercial," he said. "He is an artist and normal people may not understand his movies."

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