Our Conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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Originally published in Ink 19 on Oct 31, 2016

As part of his recent week-long visit to Los Angeles sponsored by the Los Angeles Filmforum, Film at REDCAT, and CalArts Film/Video, during which he taught classes and screened his globally acclaimed features at The Cinefamily and the Aero Theatre, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul visited the Billy Wilder Theater at the UCLA Film and Television Archive to take part in a two-night complete retrospective of his rarely screened short films. These appearances by Weerasethakul had long been circled on our calendars (and those of many others who attended the sold-out screenings) as we have joyously followed his career since seeing his exceptional 2004 Cannes Jury Prize winning film, Tropical Malady.

We were thrilled to have an opportunity to sit down with Weerasethakul for a short interview that turned into a fascinating and sometimes bizarre ninety minute discussion about everything from his filmography to the beauty and ugliness of Buddhism to censorship issues in pre- and post-military coup Thailand to the failure of media to represent innovations in science. Weerasethakul has exceptional sensibilities in capturing the many layers of reality around him, and for that reason his films and his conversations with us and the audiences who attended any of his screenings are engaging, giving, and outstandingly thought-provoking.

Lily Fierro (LF): One of the things I’ve loved about your films is that they are films of contrast. And this is especially true for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Syndromes and a Century, where you have very different characters, time periods, ghosts, and problems in and outside of the city. Could you speak about how you get inspired by the city and the places outside of it and how the two can exist in the same space even though they are so different?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (AW): I grew up in a small town that now is big, so I’ve seen really rapid change all over Thailand and also Asia over the past 30 to 40 years. Also, these contrasts are even clearer because there’s this feeling in Thailand that everything is always part of a very centralized culture that revolves around Bangkok. So, I have had this feeling that I don’t like the city of Bangkok, and that lasted until now. When I started in movies, I tried to avoid Bangkok, and I just traveled around. And then with my next film, Tropical Malady, I was in the jungle in a small town, and with that, I was really interested in the contrast because even though the movie is staying in place, the emotion is shifting from the beginning, which starts very pleasantly, to the end, where even the same environment, the same sounds of birds become very oppressive, very heavy So, I think it kind of shifts, and also when shooting in the jungle, you see the shadow and the sun, and when you are waiting for something or when you are preparing during the day and night, you see different characters of nature, so that’s why I decided to make Tropical Malady about this difference between darkness and light, present and past.

LF: As a practicing Buddhist, I must say that you perfectly capture the conflicts and difficulties with living with the belief system in society, past or present. Here, in the West, it is rare to see the complexities of Buddhism on the big screen, and your films always have a Buddhist influence. For example, many of your films mention the merit system at one point or another, especially when a monk appears. Could you talk about how you look at Buddhism and how you integrate your perspective and thoughts on it into your films?

AW: In fact, I’m quite fascinated by the karmic law that we believe. And, it’s so hard to shake it off, especially when you were young and raised with those ideas, and I just feel that it’s a curse. I really feel that karmic law is so, in this century in a third world country, prone to abuse politically, and so people become quite passive. For example, they would say, “This is our faith. This guy gained good merit before, so he deserves to be that and that.” It creates a strong hierarchy system in Thailand, so that and also the awakening of the country’s narrative through different media and the internet over the years makes you start to feel that there was a lot of propaganda around when you were growing up. The identity of the country is kind of shaking, so with the history, politics, and religion, it placed Thailand onto a very dangerous path now, I think. For me, we have so many rituals dealing with Buddhism from Hindu influence, and I think that is a big problem, to install something so physical into these beliefs, and so over the years, I was less and less interested in the ritual and more into what to present from karmic law. It is so fascinating; it’s just so beautiful and ugly at the same time, this manifestation of the merit system. I’m also quite interested in the meditation parts and how Buddhist philosophy is so scientific.

LF: Yes, there are the cosmic planes! I really appreciate your description of the implementation of the merit system as “beautiful and ugly” because as someone born into the faith system in America, I always saw this in the temples here, and it is something I always struggled with, and it is why your films mean so much to me because they capture this paradox between the faith and the way it is practiced.

AW: It shows in daily life, and so for me when I make film, sometimes I add just a little jab, or sometimes I am just inspired by these actions of myself and people.

LF: Was this conflict of Buddhism in daily life something you noticed and had a discourse on before you went to America, or did you notice it more after your time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?

AW: After. After. Before, when I studied architecture in Thailand, let’s say, I still believed in reincarnation. Even the first few years after going back home, I still believed, but now, I don’t. I just feel that it’s such a waste of time, and also it doesn’t really make people see the beauty of life actually, of just living. Instead of opening their eyes, they always think about the future; they always think about just going to the temple. Physically, you know, it is beautiful; it is exotic, but in fact, there’s a trap, and I feel that is the wrong path of Buddhism in Thailand.

LF: It makes sense that Buddhism has led to passiveness because you’re always thinking about the next life, and you think to yourself, “I’ll get to that in the next life,” so you don’t do it in this one. Do you think this passiveness of people caused by Buddhism integrated into society is going to change after King Adulyadej’s passing?

AW: No, I think it might get worse because the King’s passing is prone to manipulation by the current government. The situation is already showing on the street. How this situation has been used to make people feel together is a good thing, of course, but at the same time, it can justify certain evil from the government. I never approved of the army government that used weapons to create fear in people and silence critics, so with this collective mourning time, people are really fragile, so they can follow things so easily, so I am very worried about that.

LF: Now that I think about it, you always include military figures or monks in all of your films. Is that because you see the military and monks regularly when you live in a town, or is it that they are supposed to be symbolic representations of forces at play in Thai society?

AW: Oh, did I? Not really for the monks. For the military, yes. But for monks, I did not consciously put them in because you can see them so easily in the street. For military, yes, it’s the role I’ve seen them take over the years to be more and more repressive figures.

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A scene from Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Generoso Fierro (GF): During the Q&A session from last night here at UCLA, you said that Syndromes and a Century was censored by the Thai government. I can see the issue that the post-military coup government might have with Cemetery of Splendor, but it’s unclear to me as to what issue the previous government had with Syndromes and a Century.

AW: It was not really a military time–we had a normal government then. They objected to moral issues because Thailand is super conservative, even though we have so many vices, but they just think of film as something that does not represent reality; it should serve some purpose. That’s why films in Thailand have a lot of fantasy, ghosts, or martial arts. With a film that is reflecting life and being done in such a natural way, they were alarmed about things like the doctors drinking, or the monk playing guitar, or the monk playing with the UFO toy, even though in real life, you see a lot worse. So, they really asked me to cut these moments out. At the time, the police department was taking care of film censorship, and they invited different people from different organizations that were linked to the film’s content, meaning that they invited people from a doctor’s association, a Buddhist group, and a journalist association along with a film scholar too to meet with a policeman around this round table, and I wasn’t allowed to enter the discussion until later when they decided, “We have #1, this scene, this scene.” And then, each one started to say, “Why don’t you make a film that shows doctors helping patients in surgery? Why don’t you make a film that shows the monks being good?” It was a really backwards way of thinking of film as propaganda that has to serve certain things. That was 2007; it was not 100 years ago, and the scary thing is that many people have this mentality until now, a majority of people, more than half, I’m sure. I was really angry, of course, and the film teacher from the university said, “Hey Apichatpong, you should stop making film. You should go back to school and learn how to make movies again.” That was really hurtful, but anyway, I just got out of that session, and I started the campaign for the Free Thai Cinema movement. We had protests, and we went to Parliament to try to change this law; it was an archaic law that had been around for a long time. And then, the censorship role shifted from the police to the ministry of culture, and so they have a rating system now, better but still a little backwards, but better than before.

GF: With Tropical Malady and any other time when you address homosexuality in your films, have the censors drawn issues with that?

AW: Not really. Now, somehow, homosexuality has been in the media for quite a long time. We have a very popular series about this teenager’s love, and it really is accepted. Thailand is one of those very odd countries in terms of human rights; there are many problems, but at the same time, people are very accepting of gay issues. It’s really common to see two men or two women holding hands. When you go to a 7-11, sometimes the people behind the counter are transvestites; this is really common. Transexuals also are often flight attendants. Sexuality is quite fluid in Thailand. I live with my boyfriend in a small village in a remote area, and people are very friendly and so accepting.

LF: We’re glad to hear that. Southeast Asia is still so conservative politically and socially, so it is fascinating that somehow, Thailand is at least somewhat progressive on issues surrounding sexuality.

AW: Thailand is still really xenophobic, but gay issues are okay somehow.

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A scene from Tropical Malady (2004)

GF: While Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has been often described as dream-like, I always thought of it more as an experiment of imagination because I’ve always wondered what forms people will take once they have passed away. How did you determine what form each of Boonmee’s visitors would take?

AW: Oh, the forms came up from my memories of media because Boonmee is a tribute to things that I love: old television, old royal costume drama, old horror movies. Actually, Boonmee has six reels; it’s the film that I knew would be my last film shot on celluloid, and it was, so I divided it into the film system because when you show the film, each 35mm can holds about 20 minutes max, so for me, the film has six reels, and each reel has a different representation. The audience might not notice because it creates one storyline, but if you look at each reel, there is some different shift in color, different shift in lighting, and even the acting style, which sometimes is really realistic or sometimes really stiff like old TV. And one reel is a royal costume drama, the one with the princess. And the jungle in the last reel is my old adventure tales memory. Compared to the jungle in Tropical Malady, which is almost like a realistic jungle, the jungle for Uncle Boonmee is a jungle of media, so it has this day for night shooting, so there’s a really artificial blue tint for the jungle. This is why I introduce this film as a collection of memories.

GF: In many of your conversations during your screenings this past week, you have mentioned your love for old science fiction. You have spoken of making a film called Utopia, which you originally said had a setting of the Starship Enterprise and would include notable science fiction film leading ladies like Jane Fonda from Barbarella. We have been hoping to hear word of you filming this. We love old science fiction, and this premise is too alluring. Is there any chance it will ever happen?

AW: I think it’s very hard because I think I need to rewrite a lot of that. Because for me when I do projects, it is always about, like Mekong Hotel, which is showing now, revisiting old ideas but then changing it because it represents myself; not me, I mean, I’m not the person in the past called “Apichatpong,” and now, everything feels really distanced very quickly for me, so Utopia needs to be rewritten, but of course, if someone gives me the money, of course I would love to do it. It’s quite universal, and it’s really relevant now actually. I don’t know why I wrote that originally, but Utopia is all about violence in nature. The whole film is about the collapsing of the landscape in North America. Not in the city, but in the snow mountains and in all of these places. It’s almost like a very violent nature.

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A scene from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

GF: Your regular cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, was stolen from you by Miguel Gomes for Arabian Nights, leading to him spending more time in Portugal than expected, which prevented him from being able to film Cemetery of Splendor. When you and Sayombhu work together, how much do you influence each other’s vision because you can definitely see elements of your style in Arabian Nights and Cemetery of Splendor has a different look in its use of artificial lighting and color?

A: AW: Yes, Sayombhu was stolen. With Sayombhu, it went back to Blissfully Yours. That was his first feature film, and he used to only work in advertising, but he really understands me; he’s one of the very few DPs who understands what’s the difference between advertising and cinema in terms of image, and he also studied at a Russian film school under the DP of Tarkovsky, so he has quite an eye and a philosophy of cinema, so we got along very well from the first film. And so he influenced me a lot, and also, he knows me and my preferences. It is the same with my editor and sound designer.

GF: You develop that personal relationship. We saw Leos Carax speak about his cinematographer who recently passed away. Though the two weren’t great friends, they ate breakfast together nearly everyday, and that’s not something you can easily replace. I can imagine that it was strange when Sayombhu was stolen. Did you get a chance to see Arabian Nights yet?

AW: Unfortunately no. It was at Cannes, and I was just too busy.

GF: It is a magnificent film. If it is a consolation, you lost Sayombhu, but he did phenomenal work on Arabian Nights.

LF: Cemetery of Splendor was filmed by Diego García who came recommended from Carlos Reygadas, a director whose sensibilities are not too far from yours. You have said that Cemetery of Splendor is most likely your last film shot in Thailand, and in last night’s Q&A, you mentioned that Latin America may be your next destination. Did working with García and/or speaking with Reygadas point you even closer to Latin America?

AW: Exactly. Not only Carlos, but also just being there in Mexico City because I have a gallery there that I work with for visual art, so I went there quite a number of times, and I think my draw to Mexico is because it is actually the reflection of Thailand because it’s so comparable. Something like Tropical Malady or other Thai myths and jungle stories that I liked were written in the ’60s and ’70s, and they were actually influenced by the American or European writers that went to South America to create stories about these adventures and animals during colonial times, and they wrote, really, about a romanticized jungle. So actually, for me, there’s a trace of this influence to make me interested in the allure of the jungle, so I think maybe going to South America is like going back to the source to this thing. I was in Peru, and it was like going home somehow. I don’t know why. To see the ruins and the technology of the past is almost like science fiction to me but reversed in time.

GF: When you see a Mayan temple, it really does feel as though you are entering a science fiction film. South America has become so fruitful in its cinema too–the new movements in Chilean and Argentinian cinema are just two of the scenes that are thriving, so it would be a wonderful place for you.

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A scene from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

LF: Science is clearly something you love; it always has a visual influence in your films, and it also has a thematic role too. In Syndromes and a Century, science has a very interesting role in the way that it impacts our daily relationships. How much of your interpretation of science, its applications to the past and present and how it can make people more separated from each other even though it can help make life better, goes into your films?

AW: For me, science is like art. For me, they are very inter-woven. In Cemetery of Splendor, it is really about perception, and how our brain works and how loneliness can trigger something, and how dreams can manifest desire and imagination. I don’t know; it’s hard to explain, but it’s all these inner-workings when we sleep or when we dream that I am interested in, and I did quite a lot of research and tried to present it in the film–how some logic seems to be in our dreams, how some logic seems to be okay even though it seems so outlandish sometimes. So, this representation of dream is very interesting to me. It’s not like when you dream in let’s say mainstream cinema, sometimes you can see something like a Salvador Dalí painting, things melting or something like that, but for me dreams are really so ordinary, but there is some little chip of logic in them.

LF: And, that’s why you have the different colors of light in the hospital, right? I read that you had been interested in how colors can modulate brain activity?

AW: Yeah, there is really amazing research about how colors can trigger false memories in mice; it can introduce information there. I think maybe we already do that with film. When you look at cinema or media it’s already there, you know, you just put information in people. For me, the sleeping soldiers and all this shifting light maybe are about just putting all this narrative into their dreams. It’s like education; it’s like how we grow up: what we are told and how we are being lied to about different pasts.

GF: You had mentioned in a Q&A after the first night of short films that you were a big fan of Gattaca, so much so that it was part of one of the listening exercises that you conducted with students at CalArts this week to get them to be more aware of sound. Gattaca was so underappreciated here because I think that when most Americans think of science fiction, they think of Star Wars and that type of science fiction film. Gattaca is a very intelligently made film; I wish Hollywood would look at science fiction less as action cinema and more as an opportunity to operate a narrative in a genre that is so expansive; you can do so much with science fiction, but for the most part, it always turns into Guardians of the Galaxy. And, it doesn’t have to be that.

LF: And science in and of itself, has smaller things happening than space travel that are fascinating, and you can explore them in film. For example, we’ve seen research where microelectrodes can be implanted into a mouse’s brain, and a radio can be used to control their movements. There’s also active research about the neural encoding activity of birds as they learn how to form their own birdsongs. There are a lot of strange and amazing things happening in science that would be great platforms for science fiction, but I don’t think they will get used.

AW: I love Gattaca. This country is so big that the progress of science is so fascinating, the research. But at the same time, it is not reflected in the media, in popular media, so it seems like it is not really well synchronized. It should, no? Media should reflect the humanity of these times, so scientific progress should be in the media.

GF: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. This conversation reminds me of the one that I was very fortunate to have when I had the opportunity to interview Abbas Kiarostami many years ago in Boston before it became impossible for him to get a visa to visit the United States. A great deal of our conversation that day involved his issues in creating cinema during the Iranian Revolution and the continued censorship he had to deal with as a filmmaker. Understanding your current issues with censorship, we so appreciate your open candor in regards to not only your work but also your comments about the current state of Thailand.

We would like to give special thanks as well to Los Angeles Filmforum, CalArts Film/Video, and Film at REDCAT for bringing Apichatpong Weerasethakul for an expansive retrospective. We would also like to give additional thanks to Kelly Anne Graml of the UCLA Film & Television Archive for making this conversation possible.

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GENEROSO AND LILY’S 2016 TOP TEN FILM LIST, SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS, BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS, AND BEST REP FILM EXPERIENCE

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There is a consistent theme that runs through many of the films on our best of list for 2016, and allow us to start this year’s reflection by emphasizing that this seemingly unifying theme emerged organically without any set political agenda whatsoever. We simply began the year by purchasing a notebook, which permanently lived in the front left pocket of Generoso’s man-bag and housed our chronicles of our favorite films that we saw throughout the year with a numerical rating and a short review. That was the strategy for the collection, and we stuck with it as we had in previous years, but by the middle of the year, we realized that the current desperate state of the world’s economy and the governmental response to that failing economy were becoming the central message of many of the works that had connected with us. We are decades past the “cause films” of the 70s and 80s, the eras that generated films such as The China Syndrome and Coming Home that were produced in a realist, albeit somewhat melodramatic style to make you empathize with a particular societal issue of the day like nuclear waste or the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans. We have a more sophisticated film language now, and although most the films on our list draw do attention to current issues, we chose them based on their artistic merit and ability to innovate cinema in the process of approaching today’s complex world.  

And away we go…

1. Arabian Nights (As Mil e uma Noites) / Portugal / Dir: Miguel Gomes
Back in 2013, we placed Miguel Gomes’ Tabu at number two on our best of list of the year. That magnificent, romantic mess disguised as a postcolonial statement that featured snippets of The Ramones and a sad crocodile was the most confusing yet artistically satisfying film that we had seen that year. We had patiently waited for Arabian Nights to be released here, almost a year after it had debuted at Cannes, and three years after Tabu came to our local theater, it arrived, and it was well worth the wait. To prepare for the film, Gomes sent out reporters throughout Portugal to acquire stories, and these people returned with tales from everyday life, some quiet and nuanced and others so absurd, and ultimately heartbreaking, that for Gomes, the question of making anything remotely near a traditional narrative became impossible for him to do as evidenced in the first twenty minutes alone when we witness the director actually running away from his own film crew when faced with the task making a narrative film under the overwhelming presence of Portugal’s economic crisis that has been brought on through brutal austerity measures. That funny but honest moment is soon followed by the sumptuous image of Scheherazade crossing your screen with the sound of Phyllis Dillon’s rocksteady version of Alberto Domínguez’s “Perfedia” in the background, which is followed by “The Men With Hard-Ons,” a Bertrand Blier-esque comical scene where bankers and government officials appear to be sexually revelling in the work of financially screwing over humanity. As jarring as these moments are in their depiction and sequencing, they only serve to better set up the gut-punching reality of stories such as “The Bath of the Magnificents,” which centers on the an annual trip to the ice cold ocean of for the unemployed, Portuguese version of the Polar Bear Swim Club.

Gomes borrowed/stole Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom to lens Arabian Nights, and the combined efforts of Mukdeeprom and Gomes lead to an outcome that is years ahead of what we saw this year in terms of where the visual language of cinema should be in 2016. Gomes’ never loses sight of the fact that he gets to make art for a living while those around him are suffering, and in turn he has made an epic work that is multifaceted, audacious, and even wild in its approach but is ultimately clear in its urgency to tell the stories of people who are living in a desperate situation. Be prepared to ask yourself: “Why am I looking at this?” repeatedly through viewings, and each time, you will find a better answer, especially when you see the chaffinches of the third volume or the ghosts in the second volume. Gomes understands the full range of every human emotion in times of strife, and the stories in Arabian Nights collectively capture how strong, weak, happy, sad, insane, and reasonable we can be.



2. The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo) / Philippines / Dir: Lav Diaz
Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in the year of 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio, our best actress pick for this year), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Despite this setup that seems more suitable for an action blockbuster, Diaz’s film slowly and gracefully unfolds into a final statement on fate and forgiveness through interactions with people who must live and try to survive in the face of corruption led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people. And though The Woman Who Left takes place in a Philippines of twenty years ago, you cannot divorce yourself from the relevance of the statements on the strangling arms of corruption raised in Diaz’s film when you see the devastation caused by the anti-drug bloodshed happening on the streets of Manila today.



3. The Wailing (Goksung) / Korea / Dir: Na Hong-jin
The Wailing is the first horror film since Neil Marshall’s 2005 scare, The Descent, that has ranked this high on our top ten list, and like The Descent, Na’s film transcends the genre. Na masterfully uses some fairly grotesque visuals and concepts as diversionary elements in The Wailing to throw you off the trail of not only the cause of evil in the film but also his core social critique of a nepotistic Korean society that chooses to direct anger towards ancient enemies while rotting from within due to outdated familial imperatives that keep people from forming the necessary communities to battle evil as a whole, united front. Na’s striking visuals and moments of intense suffering may cause you to feel a level of confusion due to your own empathy for individual characters and may also distract you from the director’s thesis detailed above, but that is indeed Na’s intention for his beautifully executed allegory. The Wailing will most likely go down as one of the finest uses of the horror genre as metaphor for a society’s woes, meeting (and maybe even surpassing by a tiny bit) the high standard set by George Romero’s use of the zombie trope in Night of the Living Dead to examine America’s issues during the civil rights movement.



4. Cemetery Of Splendour (Rak ti Khon Kaen) / Thailand / Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Much has happened in Thailand since Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century, which articulates the director’s reflections on his country’s shift in attitudes from the time of his birth to the present day as seen through the daily activities of a Bangkok hospital staff. In 2014, the Thai army launched a coup d’état and established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation, and to emphasize the contrast in his society from a decade ago, Weerasethakul has again chosen a hospital of sorts as the setting to reflect the current state of his nation—a nation that now sees an importance of the military as its first concern, leaving its citizens to fend for themselves and look towards the west for a means of survival during the military state that is the prevailing government. In Cemetery of Splendour, a ward of soldiers suffering from a sleeping sickness are being treated with the latest in medical technology in a makeshift clinic housed in a school that was built on an ancient site. We meet a volunteer named Jenjira (longtime collaborator Jenjira Pongpas), who watches over a soldier without a family and then starts up a friendship with a young medium named Keng who uses her abilities to assist the unconscious soldiers communicate with their loved ones. In Syndromes and a Century, we see a country that is steadily favoriting western attitudes, whereas Cemetery Of Splendour shows a Thailand that has been put into a position where it must struggle to simply preserve its beliefs and identity as they are being rewritten by a military force that has its influence everywhere. Cemetery of Splendour is a masterfully realized film composed of understated performances and sublime visuals that have become the standard of Weerasethakul’s work these last twenty years. We were fortunate enough to discuss Cemetery Of Splendour with the director in an interview we conducted at the UCLA Film and Television Archive back in October of this year.



5. Elle / France | Germany | Belgium / Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Issues of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church and the devastation that it causes are also the subject of another one of our favorites from AFI Fest 2016, Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philippe Djian’s controversial 2012 novel, Oh…. Isabelle Huppert delivers her always brilliant performance as Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a videogame company who bears the shame of being the daughter of one of France’s most infamous mass murderers, a Catholic zealot who, during a crisis of faith, decides to brutally slaughter a neighborhood of parents and children. Early in Elle, Michèle is brutally raped but refuses to report the crime and allows for further transgressions against her as part of a self-imposed penance brought on by Catholic guilt. As the violent atonement proceeds, the identity of the rapist and his relationship with Michèle emerge as an allegory for the unholy alliance between the traditionally vilified Semitic participation in banking and the pious and benevolent public appearance of the Roman Catholic Church. More volatile than anything released this year so far, Elle, has been selected as France’s entry into the 2017 Academy Awards and rises as one of the finest films of Paul Verhoeven’s long, turbulent career.



6. Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) / China / Dir: Gan Bi
Gan Bi’s Kaili Blues was the most impressive debut feature that we saw in 2016. Though Gan’s film borrows a small portion of its narrative and visual style from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, its uniquely constructed, forty-minute long, single take scene on a motorbike is so clever that it demands to be on this list. At the beginning of the film, Gan displays the following Buddhist text from the Diamond Sutra: “the past mind cannot be attained, the present mind cannot be attained, the future mind cannot be attained.” The reasoning behind these words remains elusive through the first half of the film as we follow the story of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew who has been sold to a watchmaker, but, when the aforementioned gorgeous single take on the bike occurs, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Gan challenges the medium of film in a bold and compelling way that even few master directors dare to, and for that, Kaili Blues earns its spot at number six on the best of 2016.



7. Graduation (Bacalaureat) / Romania / Dir: Cristian Mungiu
Cristian Mungiu, who along with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, represents the leading force behind the Romanian New Wave of the last decade. Both Puiu and Porumboiu have released features over the last few years to varying levels of acclaim, but Mungiu has been oddly silent since his 2012 film, Beyond The Hills, which earned the Best Screenplay prize that year at Cannes. Arguably the most revered of his Romanian peers, Mungiu returned to AFI Fest this year with his Palme d’Or nominated and Best Director at Cannes winning family drama, Graduation. Adrian Titieni portrays philandering surgeon, Romeo Aldea, who is trying to balance relations between his wife, his mistress, and the one person he truly loves, his college-aged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Even though Romeo is a ranking surgeon at the local hospital, his distinguished career doesn’t pay him enough to afford to send Eliza abroad to Cambridge University, a dream that he desires for her seemingly more than she does for herself. When Eliza is violently attacked on the street the day before her state exams, she performs poorly on the first of the exam series, which puts her scholarship in jeopardy. Left with few options, Romeo must engage in unethical favor peddling in order to secure his daughter a high grade on the second and final exam. Cristian Mungiu’s talents in encapsulating larger issues within his country into a small personal drama are in full display in Graduation, a film that does not strive for the sense of frenetic tragedy of his previous film, Beyond The Hills, yet it is no less gripping due to the moral struggles behind the decisions that his characters need to make.



8. High Rise / UK / Dir: Ben Wheatley
If you were expecting a verbatim adaptation of the J.G. Ballard book that the 2016 film, High Rise, is based on, then you will be gravely disappointed, but if you look at the craft of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s interpretation of Ballard’s ideas for modern day sensibilities, you’ll realize that High Rise is an outstanding adaptation. Wheatley and Jump understand today’s society, and they mold the Ballard tale to reflect the passiveness and dangerousness of the contemporary creative class. In the original novel, Ballard warned of this upper middle class, but Wheatley and Jump have seen and experienced it in their lifetimes, and that perspective is the strong suit of the film. Consequently, High Rise (the film) then becomes not a class struggle between the rich and the poor, but a conflict of small differences between people of the upper classes alone. No one is truly suffering in Wheatley’s High Rise, but the building’s failures make the residents believe that they are actually suffering, which causes the occupants to blame each other before daring to question the structure itself—a perfect metaphor for the tunnel-visioned creative class of today.



9. Buster’s Mal Heart / USA / Dir: Sarah Adina Smith
One of the biggest surprises of this year’s AFI Fest came via the New Auteurs programming section with Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature by Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the unique and regrettably overlooked 2014 film, The Midnight Swim. Much will be made of the layered performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart, and this praise is indeed deserved, but much credit has to be given to Smith for making an exceptional drama that, although set in and around the Y2K panic of 1999, presents an excellent allegory for disenfranchised people today who find themselves economically and racially out of sync with the current version of a successful society. Smith deftly balances the present and past through memories and dream logic to create an antihero who in appearance seems insane but in reality may have the key to survival. Generoso sat down with Sarah Adina Smith at AFI Fest for a thorough discussion about her film.



10. Interruption / Greece | France | Croatia / Dir: Dir: Yorgos Zois
Set in a theater in Athens, Zois’ daring film, Interruption, uses a post-modernist adaptation of Aeschylus’ classic Greek tragedy, Oresteia, as the center of his meditation on the Dubrovka Theatre incident. While a performance of the play is taking place, the armed Chorus, consisting of seven people, forcibly takes the stage and apologizes for the “interruption” and then soon calls out for a group of audience members to take the stage so that they can establish an order for the remaining narrative. Now, several more members of the audience mount the stage, which prompts the leader of the Chorus, who takes a seat in the front row, to interview this new assortment of audience volunteers one after another, asking about their professions and even going as far as asking some of them personal questions regarding their romantic relationships. In this group of audience volunteers is one professional actor whom the Chorus leader casts in the role of Orestes, who, based on the original text, has the intention to murder his own mother, Clytemnestra. Now onstage are two people portraying Orestes, and the line further blurs between spectator and actor, and with it, a debate that argues the necessity to carry out Orestes’ act of matricide from a moral standpoint against the original narrative of the play, further breaking down the structure between the intended goal of the author and the role of the spectator as passive observer. So, what role does the filming of this event serve in this adaptation? As Zois explained: “I wanted to create a cinematic world where the viewer could use all his senses and experience a voyage to a world that blends the limits between life and art, fiction and reality, logic and absurdity. A cinematic enigma that offers no single solution but offers you the chance to see a different view each time you look through a different view. This film is about the art of viewing and what does viewing mean and the point of view, and no one sees the same thing in the same way.”

SUPPLEMENTAL FILMS FOR 2016

Certain Women / USA / Dir: Kelly Reichardt 
Based on short stories from Maile Meloy’s collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Reichardt nimbly interweaves three stories of women who are employed in traditionally male occupations. In a slight reversal of Altman’s use of a city setting that seemingly conspires to add to the misery to the lives of its inhabitants, Reichardt uses the natural, present day Montana setting of Certain Women to further exemplify the unnatural impediments that contemporary women have to endure in order to succeed. Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Michelle Williams are exceptionally strong in their roles, but much has to said about newcomer and Montana native, Lily Gladstone, and her beautifully understated and heartbreaking performance as Jamie, a lonely ranch hand who develops an attraction for her education law teacher Beth, (Kristen Stewart) who herself is struggling to find acceptance as a young attorney in a town several miles away from where she is recruited to teach her class. One of the best American dramas of this year, Certain Women gives a more restrained and less cynical treatment of the societal criticism in its central thesis than the director’s previous effort, Night Moves, but still, Reichardt has still created an important film for this generation that is seeing its gender roles in the workplace change on a daily basis with varying degrees of acceptance.



Yo / Mexico / Dir: Matías Meyer
Yo refers to the title character (played by Raúl Silva Gómez), a large man in his early twenties who we soon realize is functional, yet developmentally challenged, and as thus, he remains in a state of perpetual adolescence. Yo is under the care of his mother (Elizabeth Mendoza), and they both live and work at the family restaurant where Yo has the unenviable task of slaughtering and plucking the chickens that they serve. Also residing with Yo is his mother’s lover Pady (Ignacio Rojas Nieto), a brutish man in his fifties who has a tendency towards being abusive towards Yo, which seems to have become so commonplace that no one in the house raises any concern, including Yo, who seems content with his menial tasks and chances to play with his coins on the floor of the restaurant and goes unnoticed to the patrons as though he is a piece of furniture, a trivial part of the restaurant setting. This is one of the earliest moments that we notice humans’ interactions with their surroundings, a key element in most of Meyer’s previous work and the primary way that we come to understand Yo throughout the film. As opposed to Meyer’s previous feature, the Zapata-era film,
Los Últimos Cristeros, Yo is a fairly modest production that involves a small amount of actors, the usual use of the set, one-camera shot for most scenes, and a few locations, but like his previous feature, it utilizes the spacious natural terrain of Mexico to cleverly further the development of the film’s central characters. The tension that Meyer creates with his character of Yo and his disenfranchisement with his surroundings is palpable throughout the film in the same eerily quiet and ominous way that Iranian director Jafar Panahi presents in his equally marginalized central character of Hussein, the beleaguered and impoverished pizza delivery man who wanders through an unwelcoming Tehran, in his 2003 film, Crimson Gold. As in Crimson Gold, the excellently crafted level of tension in Yo drives the narrative even during the most tranquil of scenes, which provided the main reason why we were so completely engaged with the film. We discussed Yo at length with Matías early in 2016 at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.



Yourself and Yours / South Korea / Dir: Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-soo has built a body of work based on a formula that relies on his main character’s self-destruction. In most of Hong’s films, we see a relationship fall apart; sometimes we see it begin; sometimes we see it repair, and all of these activities occur in a warped sense of time where the present is never the present, and the past is not the only past.
Yourself and Yours is true to the purest of this signature Hong form. In this most recent film, Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) struggles to trust his beautiful girlfriend Minjung (Lee Youyoung), and as a result, the two part ways. As he attempts to recover from the breakup, we, as the audience, see Minjung take on multiple personas as she spends time with various men. We gradually get a sense that these personas represent all of the ways that Youngsoo and his meddling friends look at her, and quickly, we realize that in all of these different versions of Minjung, we have lost the true Minjung, or we may have never known her at all because she might have never existed. This confusion surrounding the truest form of Minjung amplifies because all of the men who show affection for Minjung in her different states are creators who may also look at her in some idealized form. Youngsoo himself is an artist. One man (Hong favorite Kwon Haehyo) is a writer. Another (Yu Junsang) is a director. So, we must ask: is Minjung just a muse that cannot be reached for all of these men? Is the real Minjung not Minjung at all because “Minjung” is just the name of a heightened representation of a woman of another name who exists in reality? Hong does not provide a direct answer to the identity of Minjung, for what is most important in the film is the shedding of all of the perceptions of Minjung (or not Minjung) in order to allow Youngsoo to love unconditionally. Yourself and Yours could have benefitted from a more cinematically expansive visual style (it looks more like 2010’s Oki’s Movie than 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then or 2011’s The Day He Arrives), but its small screen look does help the film feel like a derailed soap opera romance that is steering wildly through no clear path into a place where no soap opera has gone before.



I, Daniel Blake / UK / Dir: Ken Loach
For the entirety of his fifty-plus year career, Ken Loach has called out the woes of society, whether it is the racism that falls upon the schoolteacher in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss…, the dangers of privatizing British Rail in his 2001 film The Navigators, and everything in between that befalls the working-class protagonists in the episodes of his own BBC series that aired back in the 1960s, The Wednesday Play. In I, Daniel Blake, veteran BBC actor Dave Johns plays the titular character, Daniel, a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to remain unemployed to heal. After a poorly performed physical incorrectly classifies him as being fit for work, Daniel is forced to systematically hunt for a job so that he can be become eligible for unemployment insurance. One day while asking for assistance at the unemployment office, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who is also getting the bureaucratic runaround. These two marginalized people soon become platonic friends who try and help each other survive while the broken system that is supposed to assist them begins to miserably fail. There is no silver lining here, as Loach clearly lays on all of the tragedy stemming from globalization combined with a government that is woefully inadequate in compensating for the failing economy. Our packed screening of I, Daniel Blake was eerily silent with the only exception being the sound of crying from the audience, which was most likely composed of many people who, given the Monday early afternoon time slot, had a lot in common with our film’s heroes.



The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies) / Finland / Dir: Juho Kuosmanen
On a lighter but no less contemporarily-relevant front is the Finnish film based on a real-life event,
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), the second feature from director Juho Kuosmanen. Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is about to become the 1962 World Featherweight Boxing Champion, a title predicted and desired by everyone in Finland except for Olli Mäki himself. Olli has just met Raija (Oona Airola), the love of his life, so the fact that the current champion from the United States, Davey Moore, is flying in for a title fight, which will be seen by thousands of his countrymen at the stadium in Helsinki, now seems of lesser importance. Are his love for Raija and the manager-mandated absence of her causing this doubt in Olli? Is his doubt about fighting against a proven champion or the non-stop commercial hype machine around him that makes the whole event seem like a long con making him nihilistic about winning? Expertly shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer J.P. Passi, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a cynical, albeit sweet retelling of this small moment in Finnish sports history that meant more to people away from the ring than those inside of it. We sat down with film’s director, Juho Kuosmanen and DP, J.P. Passi at AFI Fest 2016 to discuss their film.


HONORABLE MENTION

Nova Seed / Canada / Dir: Nick DiLiberto
It almost seems too hard to believe that one man could animate, direct, and edit a full-length film as impressive as Nova Seed, a film that could easily fit into the catalog of Canadian-based Nelvana Limited animated film work prior to 3-D animation coming into vogue. Again, without knowing anything about DiLiberto’s Canadian background, you could see elements in Nova Seed hearkening back to the classic Nelvana style seen in films such as Heavy Metal and Rock N Rule, movies that were near and dear to Generoso’s heart during the 1980s when he was, as most boys of his generation, a rock and fantasy obsessed, pop-rock eating machine. Besides the look of Nova Seed, the premise, complete with Live-Aid era earth-saving do-gooders also seems to be an homage to 1980s 2-D animated films and television shows. Our hero NAC (neo-animal combatant), a freed warrior-slave, gets his freedom and searches for the “Nova Seed,” a being similar to the Loc-Nar in the 1981 film, Heavy Metal, in that it possesses the potential of great evil or good depending on who is controlling it. In Nova Seed, the titular being can either be a restorative or degenerative force of the ecosystem of the environmentally ravaged planet. Is that premise 1980s save-the-world-at-all-costs enough for you?! Nova Seed is not perfect: the voice-acting could have benefitted from the employment of some experienced talent to give the characters more life, but that is only one strike against a truly enjoyable animated feature that is as entertaining as it is nostalgic.



The Little Man (Malý Pán) / Czech Republic / Dir: Radek Beran
Any children’s film that has the desire to make Captain Beefheart a character can’t be bad can it? We’ll take our praise even further by admitting that
The Little Man was our absolute favorite of the features that we caught at this year’s Czech That Film Festival. This wildly imaginative and borderline existentialist puppet film ponders the question: Is being lonely worse than having friends and plunging yourself into constant peril? The titular character, Malý Pán (voiced by Saša Rašilov) seems quite content to live alone in his forest home with only visits from the postman and the local fireworks vendor to break up his day, but his dreams suggest that something is missing from his life which sends our hero on a quest to discover the message contained in his nocturnal imagination. This journey leads Malý Pán to a mystic being in a stone who requires a special sparkling water to decipher the meaning of dreams. That special sparkling water is guarded by a very evil witch, who can only be defeated with a special book that can only be read with special glasses. Along the way, our Malý Pán runs into a plethora of extremely psychedelic characters who seem to have been created in the mind of someone who has been licking way too many stamps and listening to an awful lot of Beefheart’s records. In fact, Beran’s film is packed with so many bizarre creations that even when the dialog slips a bit, you remain fascinated by what you are seeing. As is the case with the best children’s works, Malý Pán features an endless amount of whimsical ideas to thoroughly entertain the kids and a hefty share of abstract references to thrill adults. Also, let us make this perfectly clear, Captain Beefheart in any form, is an awesome thing.


MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM (TIED)

The Handmaiden / South Korea / Dir: Park Chan-wook
Allow me to quote Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz, the gangster that James Woods portrayed in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America: “You’ll live with the stink of the streets all your life.” The same can be said of the stink that Hollywood leaves on your talent whenever you are foolish enough to leave your homeland for the chance to work for the film industry housed in that crap factory. Leone found out how true that statement is when the legendary director of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly came to America in the 1980s to make an underworld masterpiece, only to have his brilliant work chopped into a million incomprehensible pieces by oafish, untalented editors. Leone sadly never directed again. Park Chan-wook left his Korean homeland in 2013 so that he could work in Tinseltown where he made the embarrassingly bad psycho-sexual drama, Stoker, which was created from only the second screenplay written by the hunky star of the overly-sweaty television drama, Prison Break. We were elated to hear that after the failure of Stoker, Park decided to go back to South Korea to make movies again, but sadly, the stink came with him. I won’t to go into the tedious sexual plot of The Handmaiden, but what transpires feels like a laughably clumsy version of an early Park Chan-wook film made by someone who really wants a job in Hollywood. The Handmaiden fails to capture even the slightest aspects of what made Park one of the most exciting filmmakers of the last twenty years. We so wish that the director of Oldboy had picked up a phone to talk to Wong Kar-wai before buying his plane ticket here, or perhaps Park should’ve at least taken a look at My Blueberry Nights before ever stepping foot anywhere near Sunset Boulevard.



Toni Erdmann / Germany | Austria | Romania / Dir: Maren Ade
We were massively underwhelmed by Maren Ade’s previous directorial effort, 2009’s
Everyone Else, a toothless romantic drama that was utterly flat in its concept and execution. Since then, Ade has thankfully stayed away from directing, concentrating her efforts on production, which have resulted in two of our favorite films of this decade, both by Miguel Gomes—2012’s Tabu, and our favorite film of this year, the three-part masterpiece that is Arabian Nights. Given these production successes with Gomes combined with unparalleled positive reviews, we were indeed excited to see Ade’s nearly three-hour, father-daughter comedy, Toni Erdmann, that unfortunately we will now refer to as the biggest disappointment of this year’s AFI Fest. Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s audacious alter-ego Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann is just a slightly ruder Capra-esque father-daughter story about an uptight, cutthroat businesswoman named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is brought back to humanity by her wild and crazy dad Toni, who poses as a “consultant and coach” for the chief executive of Ines’s company in an attempt to teach his child a lesson. I suppose that brandishing Austin Powers-styled fake teeth qualifies as great German comedy these days, which in and of itself is quite sad, but Toni Erdmann’s ham-handed attempts at social commentary are even more clichéd and painful to watch than its attempts at humor.


BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE

The Underground U.S.A. Series at Cinefamily
Over a three month period this year, The Cinefamily here in Los Angeles launched into a massive undertaking by honoring the rich traditions held in American Independent Cinema from the 1980s. The series kicked off with a three-night tribute to John Sayles, which featured screenings with appearances from Sayles himself, his partner and producer, Maggie Renzi, David Strathairn, and a cast of Sayles’ regular players and partners including everyone from Vincent Spano to the all-time king of indie cinema, Roger Corman. A few days after Sayles appearance, maverick producer John Pierson arrived with one of the many iconic 80s films that he helped bring to screens, She’s Gotta Have It. Susan Seidelman and Rosanna Arquette accompanied their hit indie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and soon after, Allison Anders arrived with her gritty noirish gem, Border Radio. Director Alex Cox brought his punk masterpiece, Repo Man, and then the next night, he presented his film, Walker, which was followed by a midnight screening of the ultimate LA cult movie, Forbidden Zone, that director Richard Elfman introduced after marching into the theater clad only in underwear with a full band of instrument-playing freaks in tow. Not to be outdone, director Robert Townsend brought a soul band with him to perform when he showed his credit card funded comedy classic, Hollywood Shuffle. Steering the series back to the cult, the Friday Night Frights folks screened Eating Raoul and brought with them cast members Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, and Susan Saiger. Directors Slava Tsukerman, Billy Woodbury, Sara Driver, Penelope Spheeris, and Ross McElwee all brought their quintessential works to The Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, which was our home from February to May as we could not have imagined missing a moment of one of most ambitious and exciting series of films and filmmaker appearances that we have experienced in ages.
http://www.cinefamily.org/films/underground-usa-indie-cinema-of-the-80s/