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Cannes-winning Thai seeks 'freedom, not stardom'

BANGKOK — Apichatpong Weerasethakul may have boosted Thai national pride with his surprise win at Cannes, but the avant-garde director says he has no illusions his surreal film will be a hit back home.

Despite clinching the top Palme d'Or prize last month as violence erupted in Bangkok, he's reluctant to screen the reincarnation tale "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" for the action and comedy-loving Thai audience.

"I know my market... I know that my film is not for everyone," the 39-year-old said in an interview in the capital, one of the few Thai cities where he plans a limited release of the film.

"Ideally I would like to screen it just for the people who really follow the film, follow my career."

Back in 2007, a top official at the ministry of culture was more blunt. "Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong," Ladda Tangsupachai told Time magazine. "Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh."

Defending a controversial draft film law that passed later that year -- despite opposition from filmmakers including Apichatpong for its wide-ranging censorship powers -- she said Thai film fans were "not intellectuals".

The softly-spoken director recalls being upset by Ladda's "very strong" comments about his work, coming as they did from a public figure: "I don't think she has a right to say that."

The snub failed to turn Apichatpong to commercial flicks; instead he stuck to unusual offerings such as "Uncle Boonmee", which at one point shows a disfigured princess having sex with a talking catfish.

It's an approach that has paid off in the global arthouse circuit, but he still has censorship battles to fight with the Thai authorities, slamming their restrictions for muzzling the country's movie-makers.

Apichatpong came up against decades-old film laws in 2007 and said he felt "ashamed to be a Thai citizen" after the blocking of seemingly harmless scenes in his "Syndromes and a Century", such as Buddhist monks flying a toy UFO.

He believes the new film law since passed -- under which censors can ban films deemed to threaten the social order, moral decency or national security -- is dangerously broad.

"You cannot make a film about politics, religion and other issues, so 1960s and 70s, when filmmakers resorted to "a symbolic kind of movie" rather than an overtly political one.

This seems true of his two-hour tale about "Uncle Boonmee".

While the plot takes the dying man on a trek through the jungle with his dead wife and his son in monkey form, Apichatpong said it is a parable on a dying kind of cinema from his youth, and he links this closely to censorship.

"People try to -- especially from the government -- they try to tell you what is the right thing to wear, the right thing to do or what is the proper national language and stuff like that," he explained.

"Fear is the key word," he added, likening Thailand's current situation to Eastern Europe in theSet in the Thai northeast where Apichatpong grew up, the fil basically you have to fall back to comedy and drama," he said. m is also a tribute to the rural region, which has its own distinct culture and dialect.

The area is the stronghold of the anti-government protesters who sparked Bangkok's recent unrest, which ended with a deadly military crackdown and major buildings ablaze just as Apichatpong left the city to collect his prize.

Speaking at Cannes, he described Thailand, where 90 people died in the recent political violence, as "controlled by a group of mafia" and "a violent country" -- comments that sparked a rush of online criticism from fellow Thais.

"But hey, look outside... it's a third world country that is still violent and people still suffer -- a lot of people," he said back in Bangkok.

Based on his childhood and experience in the protesters' heartland, he pointed the finger at central government control for fuelling their grievances, although he denied taking a political side.

"All the power is in Bangkok. So I think that's why there's resentment."

Despite these frustrations and freedom of expression fears, Apichatpong is still inspired by his home: he's now producing a four-hour epic about train rides across Thailand -- a film that "may be political", he said with a smile.

"Living in Thailand is like you're always on the edge with all this sometimes beautiful news, sometimes stupid news, stupid people or beautiful people. It's all this mixture of differences that drives me."

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