Medal of honour
19/07/08 (By: Kong Rithdee)

Thai filmmaker recognised by French government with prestigious award

The crusade he's fought has been a metaphorical one, but it's ennobling that Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has finally become, voila, a knight. Last Thursday, the French ambassador to Thailand, Laurent Bili, on behalf of the French government, decorated Apichatpong with the prestigious Chevalier des Arts et Lettres medal, in a formal, albeit intimate, ceremony at the Alliance Francaise auditorium on Sathon Tai Road.

The Chevalier is the third-tier title in the Arts et Lettres rank. Each year, around 200 people are granted the honour, and past recipients have included big names in world cinema like Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Game), Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), and Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter).

That Apichatpong's oeuvre of mesmerising movies has found rapt support from French critics and audiences is not a surprise; oddball, visionary and often misunderstood filmmakers from around the world often find their sanctuary in the Gallic appreciation of anomalous cinema. To receive such official recognition, however, is special.

In his reception speech, Apichatpong spoke beautifully about the "beautiful intention" of the award, that it will become something he can fall back on in his ongoing quest to make movies that may not register with popular sentiments, movies that express the freedom of the heart and the mind.

Before the ceremony, Apichatpong screened three of his short films. Opening the show was Anthem, a five-minute paean to the magic of moviemaking, which began with three aunties discussing the sweetness of unseasonal mangoes before they're transported to a particularly crowded badminton court where a film crew is constructing their own universe of light and shadow. Second in the programme was Morakot, or Emerald, in which the incandescent flotsam of lost memories drifts with aquatic languor in a decrepit hotel room. A melancholic visual memory, complete with three gobby ghosts, Emerald was originally part of an art exhibition at Jim Thompson House, and its ethereal quality still impressed many in the audience last week.

Closing the mini showcase was Apichatpong's latest short, Vampire, an occult, nocturnal hunt for a mysterious blood-sucking bird of the northern jungle by a displaced Shan immigrant. This strange, unglamorous political allegory was commissioned to the Thai director by the glamorous Louis Vuitton fashion house (yes, as in the bags) as part of a worldwide ensemble of shorts by avant-garde filmmakers.

Apichatpong explained before the screening that his idea for Vampire was based on the thrill of a treasure hunt, and the movie, shot almost entirely in a dark forest lit only by a flashlight, is a cheeky horror film in which a bloody human bait lures out the hidden creature - in short, it's almost a refraction of the filmmaker's Tropical Malady.

What's special about Apichatpong's movies is how they encourage new ways to think about cinema. His movies seem to be the physical results of personal tremors; they've come from the seismic wavelengths that he uses to communicate with the natural world, and to people around him. Hopefully the French medal will spur him to keep doing exactly just that, if not more.

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