After the glory of Cannes in 2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new feature is the first Thai film to ever be picked for the prestigious Venice International Film Festival


Alone and longing: First-time actress Nantarat Sawasdikul plays a country doctor in `Syndromes and a Century'.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: "This is a film about heart".

The heart - yours, mine, his - beats with a songlike tempo in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new movie. Memories - his, mine, yours - then come flooding back in strange lucidity, as the recollection of life becomes life itself. Wild orchids bloom, dreams wander into reality, or vice versa, and dead chickens come back to haunt those who eat them. The film is about syndromes and healings, about sentimental dentistry and alcoholic prostheses. It's about matter and mind, about machines and men. It begins as a comedy and ends as sci-fi. It's all of those things, and yet something more.

It was announced yesterday that Syndromes and a Century, the latest feature by Thai director Apichatpong, has been selected into the competition programme of the 63rd Venice International Film Festival, one of the world's most influential cine-occasions that sets the metronome for the state of world cinema (see sidebar). Apichatpong, 36, shook the local film scene from its creative slumber when his previous work, Tropical Malady, became the first Thai movie to earn a place in the Ivy League of Cannes competition in 2004, and now the filmmaker reaffirms his rank as an internationally celebrated figure as he's taking his strange new baby to Venice in late August.

As usual, it's nearly impossible to explain Apichatpong's movies in written words. You can explain poetry in prose, but then it stops being poetry. All you can do is feel it.

"It's a film about heart," says the director. "It's not necessarily about love, it's more about memory. It's about feelings that have been forever etched in the heart."

`Syndromes and a Century' will have its premier next month in Venice.

The film is as full of pathos as it is of humour. For all the critical fuss about the director's abstract brainwork, it's easy for the audience to overlook the fact that Apichatpong's films - always stripped of middle-class pretensions - thrive on straight-faced comic moments based on the provincial candour of his characters. Even though Syndromes and a Century, or Sang Satawat in Thai, is a personal rumination on something deep and conceptual, it could be said to be the director's most viewer-friendly work, especially in the first half, when verbal jokes and amusing antics showcase comic writing that threatens to surpass professional comedians.

Last year when he started the film, which is part of the New Crowned Hope project to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday, Apichatpong said that Syndromes is based on the story of his parents when they were both doctors at a hospital in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen. "Everything began from that idea," says the director. "But I used it as a springboard to tell other stories too. My idea grew when I met the actors and the locations. Real-life events became fictionalised when I actually started shooting.

"The plot is not so important. I see the story of my father as one tree, and my mother's as another. The stories I tell in the film are the branches that come off these two trees. And they grow. Yes, I know it's a bit difficult to explain."

Most of the film takes place in an unnamed hospital. We follow a female doctor who's being courted by her male colleague, though she seems to develop feelings for an orchid vendor. Then we have the episode of a monk who comes to the hospital to see a dentist, and their subsequent conversation about the possibilities of their past lives reflects an instantaneous bonding, spiritual or physical. And there's also another doctor on his first day at work. After being quizzed with bizarre medical questions, he wanders off into the antiseptic bowels of the hospital where he runs into patients inflicted with a variety of unusual syndromes.

Everything is illuminated and at the same time elusive, as in all Apichatpong's films. The stories, too, are mundane and mystical at once. The director's cinematic pedigree of Third-World sci-fi - or Rural Surrealism - seems to get a gentle push towards a new horizon in his latest effort.

Fitting for a Mozart tribute, Syndromes seems to move along with a musical quality, the breezy optimism that characterises the work of the Viennese composer. Apichatpong is one of the six directors commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival to make a feature film as part of the Vienna Mozart Year 2006. After its world premiere in Venice next month, Syndromes will be screened in Vienna in November, along with works by five other filmmakers from Paraguay, Iran, Chad, Taiwan and Indonesia. The year-long project also involves artists in other fields, from music and opera to architecture and visual arts.

"The original idea of the New Crowned Hope movies came from Peter Sellars, who didn't want to see films that detail the life of Mozart, but that are inspired by the quality of his music," says Apichatpong.

"Three of Mozart's compositions were chosen as the basis: The Magic Flute, Requiem and La Clemenza di Tito. What clicked with me was The Magic Flute. I'm not very familiar with Mozart's music, but I feel that the piece has a loose, watery structure. It says something about moving forward, about how more things branch off from one thing. It has a sense of something growing, and it's a sign of positive thinking."

There's an organic beauty in the way the filmmaker grows a hospital-set magic realism from Mozart's 18th century court composition (with the dead chicken joke to boot!). The way Apichatpong gels homely, unpretentious Thai stories with intriguing structural formalism has been the wellspring of his unique talent, evident from his early short films to his first three features, Mysterious Object at Noon, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady.

But it's this talent so cherished by the international cult of fans that's prompting the filmmaker to examine the meaning of his filmmaking, and of his life in the future. Apichatpong, who grew up in Khon Kaen and studied filmmaking in Chicago, has found himself in the global limelight even though his films have never been well-received in Thailand. He says how proud he was to have walked down the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival, to be up there among the greats, but he also says he passionately avoids being treated like a celebrity, being photographed at functions he hardly cares to be at in the first place. He says he wants to go live in Chiang Mai, but that it's impossible given the course of his filmmaking career.

"There are things that've come into my life recently, things that I never expected," he says. "I feel like I'm entering a new phase in life, and I feel the need to express it - I cannot keep it to myself.

"Making movies has pushed me on the stage, but I still treasure my own private world. I wish I could build a new life, a life that revolves around making motion pictures, but also a life that's not necessarily tied to this society. To make movies the way I make them - independently - means I have to take care of the financial matters, and that prevents me from being devoted solely to the creative side.

"After Syndromes, I think it's time for me to explore a new style of filmmaking, to find a new way to express myself. In Blissfully Yours, I made a film about the external energy that touches me. In Tropical Malady, I made a film based on something within myself. And in Syndromes, I've made a film about my parents. So it's all done, and now I need to look for new ideas."

Hear this then: one of Apichatpong's in-the-pipeline projects is about the adventures of a Cro-Magnon caveman who's being hunted down by SUV-driving American aunties. He's also planning a short film about an astronaut. And last month he was in Portugal to present an art installation based on the theme of waterfalls. Since his early films didn't do well locally, he still has no definite plan for the release of Syndromes in Bangkok theatres. Hopefully he'll figure out how to get the film released. It'd be a syndrome of the new century if it doesn't.




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