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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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