Open letters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

Before making its bow on the internet portal The Auteurs last month, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's A Letter to Uncle Boonmee ( had already been seen as part of his Primitive installation in Munich and Liverpool, and also in many international film festivals. But the film's online availability is significant, given the filmmaker's much-documented battle with his home country's zealous censors.

Probably the most critically acclaimed Thai filmmaker of his generation, Apitchatpong - the first Thai director to have a film screened at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals - ran foul of the authorities in Bangkok in 2006 with his film Syndromes and a Century. The Thai Censorship Board ruled the film could only be released domestically if four scenes were removed: they involved kissing and drinking in a hospital, monks playing a guitar and a flying saucer toy.

At one point, the censors even refused to return the print to the director after he refused to recut the film. Syndromes was eventually shown in limited screenings in Bangkok in 2008, with the director replacing the controversial scenes with black, scratched film stock in protest.

While hardly a piece on agit-prop, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee ( touches on one of the most dubious chapters in contemporary Thai history: it explores the story of the village of Nabua, where soldiers committed a string of atrocities during its proclaimed campaigns against communist insurgents in 1965. Inhabitants reported soldiers carrying out rape and murder. Fearing government reprisals, surviving men fled to the guerillas' mountain bases.

When Apitchatpong visits the village in 2008, he discovers a community in which a generation of men has grown up fatherless.

In Letter, Nabua is shown as a deserted hamlet, its houses and rice fields emptied of people except for a few young soldiers.

As the camera slowly glides through the houses, a voiceover - a local man reading the director's 'letter' - is heard. Seemingly, Uncle Boonmee is a teacher who fled into the jungle during the military campaign 40 years ago. 'What was your view like? Was it like this?' the voice asks.

There's no sense of melodrama in the intonation, but the question is heartbreaking: a mournful reflection of a war still raging in Thailand today, and a subject Apitchatpong's next film, Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives, will expand on.