24 April 2007

Syndromes and a Century

Written & Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Grade: A-

Syndromes and a Century was commissioned by a Mozart-Festival to celebrate the composer's 250th birthday, but trying to figure out what Mozart or the city of Vienna has to do with the film, even in spirit, is a problem for another day; Syndromes... is difficult enough to approach even on its most basic levels, like, "who's that guy?" or “what the heck’s going on?”

Narratively speaking, Weerasethakul is a notoriously cryptic filmmaker, and if Syndromes... isn't his most impenetrable film to date then the competition’s certainly a draw. Weerasethakul, as a filmmaker, is both quite patient and impatient; that is, he is tempered enough to usually just sit his camera down and let the actors go with minimal interference, but he has no tolerance for the confines of traditional cinematic storytelling. During the opening scene, Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) remarks on why he quit studying pharmacy to become a doctor: "I like to see a lot of faces", to see different people and have different experiences, and Weerasethakul approaches film the same way. More often than not, I think Weerasethakul is simply delightedly distracted by his commonplace countrymen engaged in quotidian tasks. Looking over his oeuvre, I would say Syndromes and a Century shares the most in common with the rambling, quasi-documentary, narrative-as-a-game-of-telephone road movie Mysterious Object at Noon, which, like Syndromes, ends with the camera simply espying his compatriots at play. A good chunk of Syndromes... is made up of short asides that study the goings-on at a hospital, whether it's a calisthenics class, a monk struggling through a tune on the guitar, or (a different) monk getting a routine medical exam (and telling some far-out tales about chickens). Close-ups are rare in the film, as Weerasethakul tends to stay back as a neutral observer.

While far more than a glorified, cut-and-paste, ethnographical essay, Syndromes and a Century is best enjoyed by simply surrendering to its spellbinding rhythms; it bewitches from the first frame and doesn't let go, if you let it. (In an interview with The Village Voice, Weerasethakul noted that he shoots his features on film because it, unlike digital, has a certain je ne sais quoi that facilitates the hypnosis of the audience.) Syndromes... hasn't haunted my memory since I saw it, but it did, at least for the two hours it's on-screen, put me into an inescapable trance that's confounding, enshrouding and difficult to divorce. The trick is not to allow yourself to become discouraged because, while intellectually frustrating, it is subliminally invasive, coming in through the eyes and ears and tickling the subconscious. Weerasethakul's gentle style is so far from overbearing that it, misleadingly, hardly bears at all.

Like its predecessor Tropical Malady, Syndromes... is divided into two parts, which function as mirrors, sort of, of one another. It opens in a rural hospital, during a job interview. Nearly an hour later, we see essentially the same job interview with the same actors as the same characters, but this time set in an urban hospital and from the opposite camera angle. The movie starts to repeat itself but with significant differences, as though reimagining itself through a glass darkly. Where the former was tropical, the latter is metallic and cold, and while perhaps suggesting something about the alienation of modernity, I don't think it's as simple or highfalutin as that.

During the film’s first half, romances bloom as brightly as the surrounding equatorial vegetation; Dr. Nohng asks Dr. Tuey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) to marry him, and she, rather inappropriately, launches into a story about a romance between herself and a farmer, though she never finishes it. Meanwhile, a young dentist, who moonlights as a singer (his genre is “Thai country music”), develops an inchoate friendship with a monk he’s treating that may or may not be informed by homosexual desire. (When the dentist gives the monk a copy of his latest CD, it feels like a come-on, particularly since Weerasethakul has used the exchange of music as a romantic gesture before, namely the gift of a Clash mixtape in Tropical Malady.)

In the second half, however, the romance is gone, probably sucked out of the film by the steam-eating drainpipe that occupies the screen, in an uninterrupted shot, for a few minutes. The same dentist treats the same monk, but now in the context of machinery and protective masks a conversation doesn't strike, and they remain strangers. The two doctors have no talk of marriage, as Dr. Nohng spends most of the second half stealing nips with some women in a windowless room filled with prosthetic limbs. One of the women tries a religious healing of a boy with carbon monoxide poisoning, but it's unsuccessful; is it because the magic and traditions of Thailand are buried beneath layers of concrete and steel? Or, because the segment, told from Dr. Nohng’s perspective, is so sad and tired that no healing of any kind seems to be taking place? Near the end, we see most of the characters and they're all by themselves, staring into space or wandering the lonely corridors of the hollowed hospital. (However, Weerasethakul is far too much of a genuine humanist to leave things on such a sour note; the last reel or so of the film is set in a park, as it observes the Thai at play in lush green pastures and blue waters. At the end, a large group of people do aerobics, led by a ridiculous man, as an equally silly song plays, and none of it has anything to do, at least not directly, with the story. It sure is chipper, though.)

Weerasethakul has said the film is based on his imagining of his parents’ courtship before he was born, and it seems apparent that the first and second halves of the film are dedicated to his mother and father, respectively. Syndromes and a Century is a clever, tricky film about how our temperaments shape our memories—one imagines, with standard gender stereotypes in mind, Weerasethakul's mother is, at least in the director’s mind, a kind and loving woman, as her half of the film reflects that spirit of warm romance. Conversely, the father, apparently steely and cold, has a section of the film far more melancholy, though no less beautiful. Weerasethakul isn't taking sides, but speculating his way through his parents' psyches and discovering significance in the differences.

I don't want to give the impression, however, of trying to pin-down the film as this or that; too much concern about what the movie is "about" misses the point, as it's the furthest thing from Weerasethakul's mind. I'm sure he conceives a film with certain ideas and themes in mind, but he doesn't really seem to care if he finishes those thoughts. It may sound like sloppy or lazy filmmaking, but it is so genuinely felt and carefully, mesmerizingly executed that it feels instead like a new kind of freeform storytelling, stream of consciousness at its least pretentious.

Post Script: This film is banned in its native Thailand because of some rather peculiar censors; please sign the petition and support their drive not only to have the film released, but to have the censorship laws in that country overhauled:

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