ISAN, OR NORTHEASTERN THAILAND, is a region known among Thais mainly for its poverty and grim heat—in contrast with the idyllic beaches of the south or the temperate hill forests of the north. Bangkok DJs and soap operas often mock Northeasterners as bumpkins, and northeastern Thai music corresponds roughly to American country music—rustic, easily derided, but infectious. Geographically and culturally isolated, Northeastern Thai life feels far removed from the world of art films celebrated in Berlin and Cannes. So in June 2004 everyone was surprised when a young director from Isan named Apichatpong Weerasethakul took the Cannes festival’s Jury Prize for his film Tropical Malady. He nearly missed the award ceremony, having been bumped from the flight carrying the festival’s Thai delegation. Once there, he was as surprised as everyone else to hear his name announced.
“I was so thrilled when I was standing on stage,” Apichatpong said later. “The movie had more power than I had ever expected.”
Apichatpong continues this surprising journey with his latest film, Syndromes and a Century, which opened in North American theaters in April after a successful tour on the festival circuit. It was the first Thai film ever chosen to compete at the Venice International Film Festival, and the first ever to be nominated for the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award. Soon the critics caught on. The Philadelphia City Paper called it “a shot of pure filmmaking joy,” and LA Weekly deemed it “boldly experimental.” IndieWIRE called Apichatpong “a maestro.” The New York Times has described him as “one of the most fascinating young filmmakers working today.”
A soft-spoken, slender man with a modest manner, Apichatpong looks younger than his thirty-six years. I became a convert after seeing his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, and now, after a correspondence of three years, his intriguing mix of art-house sensibility and earnestness—and its disarming and seductive effect on filmgoers—still surprises me.
Apichatpong grew up the eldest of three children in Khon Kaen, back then a dirt-road town in the middle of Isan, where his parents were both doctors. His mother was a pediatrician, his father a general practitioner. After studying architecture at the university in Khon Kaen, Apichatpong attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he explored a variety of media and made a five-minute film, 0116643225059, which linked his home in the States to his home in Thailand by phone. (The title is his parents’ old phone number in Khon Kaen, including the international and country calling codes.) Prefiguring his fascination with doubles, the film alternates between a picture of his mother and a photo of his Chicago roommate. For Apichatpong, the phone call dissolved the distance between two places and times, and unified a divided life.
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