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Just Call Him Joe: Uncle Boonmee Director Honored

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on May 10, 2011 6:00PM

2011_05_Weerasethakul.jpg Cannes loves Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His first feature, 2002's Blissfully Yours, snagged the Un Certain Regard trophy, which recognizes young talent and innovation. Two years later his second film, Tropical Malady, became the first Thai film in competition at the festival and emerged with a special Jury Prize. Finally, his mesmerizing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won last year's Palme d'Or. All he needs is the Grand Prix to hit for the cycle at the world's most prestigious film festival and put the cherry on top of a mountain of critical accolades, but the Eurpoean cognoscenti aren't the only ones who love Weerasethakul. There's more than enough for him here in Chicago, where he is known simply as "Joe."

When he moved to Chicago in 1994 for his first extended stay in the U.S., Weerasethakul was a wide-eyed freshman who claimed to have ended up at the School of the Art Institute because their application deadlines where the latest. Already 24 years old, he had completed his training to become an architect in his native Thailand only in order to provide a fallback option for the movie career which was his true ambition. Invigorated by the culture and tradition of experimental film making at SAIC, he found inspiration in their collections, broadened his cinematic knowledge while working at the Film Center, and saw as much of the city as his ever-dwindling funds would allow, moving to a different neighborhood of the city every year.

The gentle Weerasethakul asked anyone balking at the intimidating array of syllables in his name to simply call him "Joe," and as Joe grew improved at speaking English he also grew much, much better at expressing himself through his films, videos and installations. Receiving his MFA in experimental film from SAIC in 1998, he promptly completed his first film, a documentary called Mysterious Object at Noon which was inspired by the playful surrealist exquisite corpses in the Art Institute's collection. To honor their much-lauded graduate, SAIC will give Weerasethakul an honorary Ph.D at their commencement ceremony on May 20.

In honor of the occasion, Eye & Ear Clinic will be screening much of Weerasethakul's work at the Siskel Film Center in the days leading up to the ceremony. While frequently experimental, these works are always approachable, and we usually depart from them feeling as if our spirit had just taken a guided vacation to Thailand for a few hours. Each screening will be introduced by scholars whose work relates to Weerasethakul's through biography, subject matter or form, and the series will culminate with a roundtable featuring the filmmaker himself. On the whole, this series provides an excellent opportunity for the uninitiated to become acquainted with the work of one of the hottest filmmakers on the planet, or for his fans to fill in any gaps they have and for all of us to celebrate how one of the stars of the world stage first found his footing in Chicago.

Weerasethakul screenings May 14-19 will be free as part of Eye & Ear Clinic. Details about each screening can be found on their website.