Cannes, May 24 (DPA) Bangkok-born director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won top honours at the Cannes Film Festival Sunday for his movie about human beings taking on animal forms in the Thai jungle and a man celebrating his past lives.
Weerasethakul's "Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat" (Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives) was one of 19 films vying for the Palme d'Or, one of the most prestigious awards in cinema.
The 39-year-old director told the gala ceremony that the experience of winning the award was "surreal".
He said that 30 years ago his parents took him to the cinema but he was too young to know what was on the screen.
"I didn't know the concept of cinema," he said. "With this award, I think I know a little more what cinema is, but it still remains a mystery. I think this mystery keeps us coming back here and to share our world."
Known as something of an avant garde filmmaker, Weerasethakul's success in winning the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) was also something of a surprise with his movie's quirky story leaving some festival goers perplexed, while others were enthralled.
Weerasethakul has gained strong recognition at film festivals around the world over the years, wining the 2004 jury prize in Cannes for "Tropical Malady" about gay lovers and a trek to find a metamorphosed tiger.
Two years earlier, he gained the festival's Un Certain Regard section's top prize for "Blissfully Yours".
This year's race for the coveted Palme d'Or came down to less than a handful films, with many festival goers considering this year's programme to be somewhat patchy.
But then the motion-picture business is only slowly emerging from the financial crisis that swept the global economy over the last more than two years.
The Cannes' jury headed up by US director Tim Burton awarded the festival's second prize, the Grand Prix, to French director Xavier Beauvois for his movie "Des Hommes et des Dieux" (Of Gods and Men).
The 43-year-old Beauvois' movie is a compelling story about a group of monks living in Algeria during a period of rising Islamic fundamentalist violence.
It is the third consecutive year that a French director has won one of the festival's top awards.
There was stiff competition at this year's festival for the top acting awards.
Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem and Italy's Elio Germano shared the prize for best actor.
Bardem won the award for his role in Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful", in which he plays a man in a race against time.
With his life coming to an end, he battles to improve the lot for those around him, including those he may have treated poorly in the past.
Accepting the award, Bardem described Inarritu as "a unique creator".
In Italian director Daniele Luchetti's "La Nostra Vita" (Our Life), Germano plays a young father whose life is turned upside down after his wife suddenly dies.
The prize of top actress went to Juliette Binoche for her role in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's bittersweet romantic comedy "Certified Copy".
During her speech, Binoche called on Iranian authorities to release the jailed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who had been invited to join this year's jury.
"I hope he will be here himself next year," Binoche said, holding a sign bearing his name.
South Korean director Lee Chang-dong won the best screenplay prize for his film "Poetry", about a grandmother trying to find poetry in life as her world unravels.
Another surprise jury decision was handing the best actor award to French director Mathieu Amalric for his "Tournee" (On Tour), which told the story of a French manager taking a troupe of American burlesque artists on a tour of France.
The film was one of the least popular among festival goers and critics.
Chad director Mahamat Saleh Haroun won the jury prize for "Un Homme qui Crie" (A Screaming Man), which represented Chad's first-ever entry in Cannes' main competition.
Haroun's modest film is about a 60-something man forced to relinquish his much-loved job as a pool attendant at a smart hotel to his son.
Cannes' Camera d'Or for best debut feature film went to Australian-born director Michael Rowe for his romance "Ano Bisiesto" (Leap Year), set in Mexico City.
"This is as good as gets," Rowe said, accepting the award. "It can't get any better."