The 39-year-old is also a staunch critic of censorship by the government in his country, which is currently in the throes of political unrest that has killed dozens and injured hundreds more over the last two months.
Apichatpong works outside the strict confines of Thailand’s action-film studio system to make movies such as the surreal reincarnation tale “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” that won the Palme d’Or on Sunday.
He is a darling of the international festival circuit and a regular at Cannes, where in 2002 he won an award in a sidebar competition for “Blissfully Yours” and two years later took the jury prize with “Tropical Malady.”
The latter was a two-parter that begins as a city love story between a soldier and a farm worker before switching to a frenzy of sex and death in the jungle.
The jungle also plays a prominent role in “Uncle Boonmee,” a dreamlike film set in the bush of northeast Thailand that delves into reincarnation, politics and myth.
Apichatpong, who calls himself Joe for short, said after receiving the Cannes award from festival jury president Tim Burton that he wanted to thank “the spirits in Thailand that surrounded us” while making the film.
He said during the festival that he personally has seen ghosts.
His hauntingly beautiful movie sees a lost son return as a man-size monkey ghost, a disfigured princess have sex with a talking catfish and a dead wife return to gently guide her husband into the afterlife.
The Hollywood Reporter film magazine said the director’s work was based on the philosophy of reincarnation “as all beings coexisting in one non-linear universal consciousness.”
That view is “central to Apichatpong’s conception of cinema as the medium with the power to replay past lives and connect the human world to animal or spiritual ones,” it said.
Apichatpong, who also makes installations and music videos, was born to parents who were doctors at a rural hospital in northeastern Thailand. He studied at universities in Thailand and the United States.
He began making short films at the age of 24 and in 2000 delivered his first feature, “Mysterious Object at Noon,” which mixes improvised narrative with documentary footage.
Apichatpong was at the centre of a freedom of expression row in 2007 when Thai censors objected to seemingly benign scenes in one of his films, including shots of Buddhist monks playing guitar and flying a remote-control airplane.
He said at the time that his treatment by the authorities had left him feeling “ashamed to be a Thai citizen.”
The director returned to that theme during his trip to Cannes, telling reporters that “Uncle Boonmee” is a parable “on a cinema that’s also dying or dead.”
“But you cannot blame Thai film-makers,” he said. “They cannot do anything because of these censorship laws.”
The film-maker, who has his own production company called “Kick the Machine Films,” said he flew out of Bangkok “as the city was burning.”
The Red Shirts, who are campaigning for elections to replace a government they deem illegitimate, have mounted two months of rolling demonstrations in the Thai capital that saw clashes and blasts that killed 86 dead and injured 1,900.
“Thailand is a violent country,” said Apichatpong. “It’s controlled by a group of mafia.”