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Apichatpong Weerasethakul on “Syndromes and a Century”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: “Syndromes and a Century,” Strand Releasing, 2007]

Since his 2000 feature debut, “Mysterious Object at Noon” — which crafted a docudrama out of a surrealist parlor game — Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (but you may call him “Joe”) has become an art-house favorite among cinephiles for his wistful, highly independent vision. Commonly known for his experimental narrative structures, non-professional casts, and themes of nature, sexuality and memory, Weerasethakul’s films are becoming a fixture on critics’ year-end lists, especially with the 2005 release of his supernaturally romantic folk-tale “Tropical Malady.”

His fifth feature is “Syndromes and a Century,” one of several films commissioned by Peter Sellars of Vienna’s New Crowned Hope festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Hardly a literal interpretation of the assignment, the film is bifurcated to chronicle the lives of two hospital doctors, one who works in the jungles of Thailand, the other in industrialized Bangkok. Serenely beautiful and deeply personal, “Syndromes” is an ode to Weerasethakul’s Buddhist beliefs, the geographical distinction between where he grew up and where he now resides, and, most importantly, his parents, both of whom practiced medicine and were the primary inspiration behind this must-see drama.

This past week, the Thai Censorship Board demanded you remove four scenes, including one where a monk is simply shown playing a guitar. Instead of recutting the film, you took a stance and pulled its domestic release entirely. How does it make you feel to be censored in your own homeland?

Well, I’m saddened of course. But I think, in a way, I’m glad because now we want to do a petition to be submitted to the government to question what’s wrong with our system, and how efficient it is [since] it hasn’t been changed for more than 20 years.

Is this a common problem for others?

For some filmmakers, it’s become such a standard that when one makes a film, they’re automatically aware of the censor system so they won’t do this and that. I think it affects the way we tell stories. So many Thai films resort to being about comedy or ghost stories or something very light. But at the same time, this is about a studio system because my film is not part of this system that operates on fear.

Considering you don’t even like classical music, how exactly does “Syndromes” relate to Mozart?

[laughs.] Peter Sellars encouraged us to think in a more abstract and emotional way, about how we connect to the pieces of music; the idea behind it rather than the pieces [themselves]. I think Peter focused on three pieces of music. One of them, “The Magic Flute,” talks about the idea of magic in everyday life and how we incorporate it into our lives to be able to look into the future. I was thinking about that while talking with my mom about her life, so I’m thinking for me, to realize being alive is magic already. I thought I’d create a film about all this music and the people who give me life.

What kinds of music do you listen to?

Pop music, electronic music… I have a friend who runs a record company, and he sends me discs, so I can update myself. [laughs.] I like this guy in Thailand who created a persona called Cindy Sweet, a one-man operation. It’s electronic music, very beautiful.

This is your third feature film to be bisected. What fascinates or inspires you about this particular structure?

At first, I didn’t intend it to be two parts. But when we started, it was quite obvious: man and woman, rural and modern. So we said, why not? I think it’s about the contrast in Thailand and in my life, how things changed and are changing quickly. We yearn for a certain thing that cannot come back. For “Syndromes” and “Tropical Malady,” the reasons for them being in two parts are different. For the previous film, it’s more about desire and whether this is a dream or real. I think this is how we all operate, using memory. I always say that making a film is like writing a diary, so it’s a way to remember them, and it’s how our brains operate. When we remember certain things, we tend to do so in a cinematic way. You know, we have our own favorite angles and time for particular actions or moments. To make films about this is kind of challenging in a way.

Do you have such a poor memory that you need filmmaking as a tool of recall?

No, no, no. You know, like “Tropical Malady” is sometimes not about particular memories, but certain feelings or events accumulating. For me, to put it on film is about love. About someone you love, like my mother or my lover.

You live in an urban area and hold a degree in architecture, yet your films keep returning to the jungles of Thailand. Is it because you see a deeper correlation between the environments, or is it more about your own nostalgia?

It’s both, because the landscapes of Thailand are changing. Sometimes when you go to outer Bangkok, you still seem the same thing you did 20 years ago. For me, it’s conflicting, how we were and are going. Obviously, what’s changed is the way we shop. It’s quite cliché, but it’s everywhere; in Thailand, too. We no longer have these small shops, which change to something like Wal-Mart or Target. In Thailand, this kind of megastore is everywhere downtown. We don’t have a museum or big cultural institution, so this shopping mall becomes our new place for recreation. Like a new temple.

Globalization wins another battle.

It’s quite obvious, but sometimes we’re slow to realize it. For example, my boyfriend and I will have nothing to do on the weekend. Okay, let’s go to the mall! It’s so shallow, but I mean, there’s really nothing. We don’t have a decent park or movie theater. When you’re in tourist Thailand, there’re many historical places to go. For us, it’s so boring. There are some nice restaurants and bars, but I like quiet places. I’d prefer to walk in a park or a museum, some place I can be a little more conscious of my breathing. We have some parks, but they have speakers and sometimes they play music. I have to say, Thailand night life can be fun.

You grew up watching American disaster movies and effects-driven blockbusters. Are you still into popcorn movies?

Yes, I love watching these because I like special effects, and I really don’t differentiate. My films are somehow similar; I’m making emotional disaster films. It’s very intriguing that when you watch these kinds of films, you think about the future, in terms of the content itself, the special effects, how we are moving very fast [with] digital technology, the new ways of distribution, things like that.

Would you like to make a film like that?

Definitely. Like in “Syndromes,” we already did, but in little things. We have that one shot of a solar eclipse. Audiences aren’t sure if it’s an effect or not. For me, I approach each movie differently, [but] I appreciate special effects that sometimes just want to show off: “Okay, that’s big! Wow, you’re good!”

What was the last blockbuster that left you smiling?

I enjoyed “Grindhouse” very much. Is that a blockbuster? I really loved Tarantino’s part.

“Syndromes and a Century” opens in New York on April 18th (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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