Monday, March 8, 2010

Syndromes and a Century


Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is a remarkable, mysterious work, a film that's constantly slipping away from the viewer. It's a warm, disarmingly playful mood piece, as ephemeral and sensual as wisps of smoke swirling around the black hole of a vent: a strangely eerie image that Weerasethakul spends several long moments lingering over towards the film's slippery, abstract denouement. But it takes a digressive, wayward journey to get to that sinister image of deep blackness swallowing up white fog. The film opens straightforwardly enough, in a hospital office where Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) is interviewing a new doctor, Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), who's come to the hospital from a stint in the army. She asks him a number of questions, some of them conventional and some of them more abstract and conceptual; their conversation seems to be a mix of an employment interview, a psychological evaluation and a whimsical series of non-sequiturs. Throughout most of the interview, Weerasethakul keeps the camera trained in a long, static shot on Nohng's face as he reacts with varying degrees of curiosity and puzzlement to these strange questions. At the end of the interview, a hospital orderly comes to fetch Nohng and Toey, and as the doctors walk outside, the camera pans away from them towards an open, grassy field, which Weerasethakul frames in a static shot as the opening credits roll and the doctors' conversation continues offscreen. This scene introduces a subtle disjunction between audio and video as the doctors move away from this field, going about their rounds, without the audio fading away or cutting off. It is as though Weerasethakul is subverting the narrative stability of the opening scenes, suggesting that something more is going on beneath the surface, that all is not as it seems — he drops a further clue as, towards the end of this offscreen conversation, the doctors stutter to a surreal, confused halt in what seems to be a metafictional acknowledgment that these are actors playing doctors.

This opening, so destabilizing, by turns weirdly humorous and haunting, establishes the dominant mode of Weerasethakul's film, in which he's constantly toying with narrative cohesion only to pull back into moody diversions and puzzling interjections. Even so, there is a hint of a story running through the first half of the film. Toey is pursued by an admirer, who had been waiting for her throughout the opening sequence and who haunts her during her rounds, watching her from a distance and confessing his love to her. Nohng, meanwhile, adjusts to his new life in the hospital, and a dentist, Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) grows fascinated with a young monk named Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee). These disconnected stories and hints of stories weave through the film, at least until the halfway point introduces an even more disorienting disjunction: the opening scenes play out a second time, with slightly altered lines and situations, in a new context, an ultramodern hospital with clean, bright white corridors and antiseptic working conditions. If the first half centers roughly around Toey, the second half concerns itself more with Nohng, but otherwise the relationship between the two halves of the film is ambiguous. Perhaps one is the not-so-distant past (references to Star Wars possibly date it to the 80s) and one the not-so-distant future, or else they are both the present, representing the gaps in technology that coexist within modernity, or else they are alternate perspectives on the same set of characters, living the same stories over and over again with only minor tweaks.


There is a wonderful sense of ambiguity running through this film, as Weerasethakul simply strings together an elliptical series of events, anecdotes and moments, never drawing any firm lines connecting them to one another. It's a series of stories and non-stories, of moments both profound and prosaic: a monk playing the guitar, doctors drinking booze from a bottle hidden within a prosthetic leg, a solar eclipse, a picnic in the country, two lovers kissing by a window and, in the enigmatic finale, a large crowd exercising to the beat of an exuberant pop tune. It all fits together without quite forming a cohesive whole. The film is full of loose ends and lingering mysteries, characters who drift into the film for a few scenes only to disappear again.

An old monk (Sin Kaewpakpin) appears twice, once in the first half and once in the second, and each time tells a story about being haunted by dreams of chickens and falling out of bed as a result. But the subtle differences in the man's mood as he tells this story dictate the thematic throughline of his character (or characters): the first time he tells the story he is genuinely convinced that chickens are haunting him as a result of childhood cruelty towards the birds, and that they wanted revenge, while the second time he laughs the incident off as merely a dream. Linking these two perspectives is the chasm between superstition and rationality, between genuine belief in the supernatural and the mere recounting of it as folklore and legend. Is this, then, the true difference between past and present, between the country hospital depicted in the first half and the ultramodern facility in the second half, which seems to have been built atop the dilapidated earlier building?

It's unclear, but this conflict between tradition and modernity weaves through the film in sometimes surprising ways. In one scene, Ple is performing a dental exam on Sakda, and the two begin talking. The young monk confesses that he doesn't really want to be a monk but feels trapped in it, drawn to it by forces he doesn't understand. He'd really wanted to be a radio DJ or a comic book store owner, he says, and he loves "modern music," while the dentist is a bit of a pop singer himself in his off-hours. He begins singing for the monk, prompting the patient to ask if this is an exam or a concert. Who knows, and who cares? It's probably both, just as Weerasethakul's film vacillates between memory, abstract tone poem and narrative drama.


Later, banners billow in sinuous sine wave patterns in the wind above a stage as a Ple and his guitarist perform before a carnival audience. It's a wonderful moment, bathed in cool nighttime colors, subdued neon hues wafting through the night, as the song, an aching love ballad, drifts above the twang of the guitar. After the concert, Ple meets up with Sakda and gives him his newest CD, telling him, "Normally I only sing about teeth and gums, but this album is all love songs." It's like the set-up for an obscure joke: what does the dentist/pop singer say to the monk? And the punchline is as sublime as it is unexpected. One pictures it as a New Yorker-style gag cartoon, the monk and the dentist standing together by a balcony in a garden, the night alive with insect chirps all around them, and this deadpan caption set off against the poetry of the scene. The humor in this film is rich and often startling, burbling up from out of the framework of conversations that seem serious and poignant one moment, absurdly hilarious the next — Sakda and Ple transition from speaking about reincarnation and Ple's dead brother to this deadpan punchline. Even better, the line casts new light on the song Ple had been singing earlier, which is indeed a love ballad but which contained a line that seems puzzling and weird at first — a tribute to a girl's shining white teeth — but that makes sense once one realizes that the lyricist is a dentist, who can't help but return to his favored material even in the context of a love song.

The unlikely friendship between the dentist and the monk provides one possibility for the thematic implications of the film's halved structure. While the pair form a connection during a dental exam in the first half of the film, when this scene plays out again in the second half, it's in an antiseptic, blindingly white operating room, surrounded by rows of identical cubicals, with a nurse assisting the doctor. Patient and doctor don't talk here, except in laconic phrases about the mechanics of the exam itself. The gap between these two scenes suggests that the advances of modernity are fostering disconnection and increasing the distance between people, making it more difficult to form the kinds of human bridges that might allow a doctor and his patient to bond over pop music. Even so, Weerasethakul isn't making some simplistic point about the alienating effects of technology; this is simply one thread, and it is counterbalanced by the scenes in the second half between Nohng and a young patient he takes an interest in and tries to connect with.


Of course, the most potent form of connection shown in the film is the lure of sexuality, which remains a barely articulated undercurrent until a late scene between Nohng and his girlfriend, where they stand by a window and kiss, then talk about him relocating with her, then kiss some more. The scene ends with Nohng laughing with embarrassment as he adjusts his erection in his pants, a moment of frank sexuality that startlingly brings sex to the forefront, if only for a second. Such pleasures are fleeting — the couple's situation is obviously precarious and they seem on the verge of a breakup — but no less real. This is indicative of Weerasethakul's method in general: he allows themes and moments to emerge organically, presented for their own sake rather than as components in a tightly knit narrative framework.

At one point, when Toey is pursued by her admirer, she distracts him from his anguished declarations of love by telling a lengthy story about an orchid grower (Sophon Pukanok) she meets in a market, and her subsequent unarticulated desire for this other man. This anecdote rambles along without resolution; it begins as a story she's telling to a new suitor, but then it drifts off into its own place, expanding into a sensual depiction of an afternoon spent at the farmer's country home. This story is interrupted once by the intrusion of the present-day scene, but after that it ceases to be a flashback and takes on a reality of its own, as though it is not a memory but something happening to Toey in real-time. Weerasethakul never resolves either the story of the orchid-grower or the story of the other admirer; the flashback cuts off after the farmer obliquely tries to tell Toey that he loves her.

This meandering approach to storytelling serves Weerasethakul well. Syndromes and a Century is a rich, lively film, packed with moments of sensuality, grace and beauty. When the spirit moves him, Weerasethakul will pause to observe a solar eclipse, or the pale blue of the sky as seen through a web of tree branches, or a dragonfly briefly alighting on the rippling surface of a pond, a magical moment caught almost accidentally within the camera's view and stitched into the film for its inherent beauty and mystery rather than for any import it might have for the characters or stories Weerasethakul is elliptically telling. This openness inflects every frame of this film, which is very much alive with possibility; the narrative itself seems to be constantly branching off, suggesting the potential to follow multiple paths, to see the same scenes from multiple perspectives. It's a film, also, about the possibilities of human connection, about feeling empathy for others, about wanting to heal pains both physical and emotional. It is, above all, a beautiful and moving film, a nearly overwhelming cinematic experience that is dense with ideas and with suggestive imagery.

20 comments:

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

It's wonderful to see you exploring Weerasethakul's work. Have you seen any of his other films? Blissfully Yours is my personal favorite, although Tropical Malady and this one are both beautiful in their own ways.

Jake said...

I was bowled over by this film when I saw it. So experimental and innovative yet so warm, cheerfully funny and touching. I recently watched Weerasethakul's latest two short movies and I've been meaning to review them. He manages to add beauty to anything, it would seem. I cannot wait to try out the rest of his filmography.

Doniphon said...

For some reason Blissfully Yours did not move me the way it has others (although the final third was undeniably sublime), but I love Tropical Malady and Syndromes And A Century. Thematic meaning is definitely of secondary importance here, it's a film that just exists moment to moment as it is.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, all. I have just started to discover Weerasethakul's work, and I'm really impressed thus far. I've seen this one and Blissfully Yours (my review of that one will be posted later this month). Like Jake, I was really blown away by Syndromes, which is just hypnotic and beautiful. He's a pretty amazing talent. I'll hold off on commenting too much on Blissfully Yours until my piece has been posted, but I liked it just slightly less than this one. Looking forward to Tropical Malady and his first feature now.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Syndromes and a Century is about Joe's parents and how they met.

Carson said...

This is one of the stronger essays I've read about Weerasethakul, or "Joe" as he's often called. He's definitely a fascinating filmmaker with a visual style that is highly distinct. I didn't get into Syndromes and a Century as much as most people did, but I did appreciate many sequences on the basis of their moods and visuals. This makes me want to revisit the film though; I especially like your point about the doctor's joke to the monk and how it could make its way into a newspaper as a one-liner.

I do strongly recommend A Letter to Uncle Boonmee however, a recent short he made about an abandoned village called Nabua in Thailand. It's extraordinarily beautiful and succinct, and got me excited to see more of his work. I've gathered a bunch of screen shots from it here.

Ed Howard said...

David - I've read that description of the plot, too. What I find interesting is that there's absolutely nothing in the film itself to indicate that reading. It's more like that was Weerasethakul's starting point and he created this mysterious, elliptical work riffing on a scenario that's only present behind the scenes.

Thanks, Carson, I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. I'd love to see some of Weerasethakul's short films, but they're not available on DVD, right? That's a shame. There is one, which I haven't watched yet, on the BFI Syndromes DVD that I have, so I can at least check that out sometime soon.

Carson said...

I don't know if they're on DVD yet, but A Letter to Uncle Boonmee can be found here for only $2.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Ed, here is a link to a recent short he did--it's absolutely stunning.

http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/2009/phantoms

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well all his works are mysterious and elliptical. That's what makes him such a unique filmmkaer. The way his parents met was the starting point for Syndroms and a Century. The film itself, like all of Joe's films, is pure audio-visual poetry.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, thanks Carson and Jeremy. I'll definitely be checking out both of those links. Look for a shorts round-up once I do.

David, we definitely agree!

John said...

I love this film very much and I agree with your comments regarding the "ambiguity" of the movie. Normally this ambiguous quality might frustrate or feel precious and pretentious but in Apichatpong's films it comes off as completely natural. Because of this I also think it really is a film where one can say that each viewer will take something very different away with them afterwards.

Drew said...

Awesome review Ed. I remember how excited I was when I first saw Syndromes, truly moving film poetry like this just doesn't come around often enough.

The only other Joe. W I've seen is Mysterious Object At Noon, which is quite marvelous in its own right.

crow said...

http://crowwithnomouth-jesse.blogspot.com/

Sam Juliano said...

"There is a wonderful sense of ambiguity running through this film, as Weerasethakul simply strings together an elliptical series of events, anecdotes and moments, never drawing any firm lines connecting them to one another. It's a series of stories and non-stories, of moments both profound and prosaic: a monk playing the guitar, doctors drinking booze from a bottle hidden within a prosthetic leg, a solar eclipse, a picnic in the country, two lovers kissing by a window and, in the enigmatic finale, a large crowd exercising to the beat of an exuberant pop tune. It all fits together without quite forming a cohesive whole. The film is full of loose ends and lingering mysteries, characters who drift into the film for a few scenes only to disappear again."

Absolutely, and the tug of war between tradition and modernity is also a major aspect of this brilliant work. My favorite of his is TROPICAL MALADY, (which I rate among th etop ten films of the new millenium) but this film and BLISSFULLY YOURS are masterpieces too. This is a fantastic essay!

Ed Howard said...

John, I like what you say about the ambiguity in this film being "natural" — it's not forced, it seems more like a natural result of this milieu and these characters.

Drew, this is definitely the kind of film that's exciting; I felt this rush throughout it, and afterwards, as I knew I was seeing a truly wonderful piece of art.

Sam, I'm really looking forward to Tropical Malady now, I'll have to watch it soon.

And Jesse, thanks for linking to me! I appreciate it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Tropical Malady is truly amazing. It starts out as a seemingly uncomplicated gay love story. Then in the second half it goes where love stores -- regardless of sexual orientation -- never go.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Superb review, Ed, of a magnificent film. My second favorite Weerasethakul, following Malady. Do check that out. And Mysterious Object at Noon too...

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, JAFB. I'll definitely be watching everything I can find by Weerasethakul. He's really got me excited.

Deemelinda said...

thanks you for such a beautiful write up on this film. I also really liked Apichatpong's interview where he says that this film is about two types of light, natural and artificial. One can see how he approaches cinema from the architectural background that he comes from and how the setting of the characters is so important.Also the fact that he was recreating the memory of spaces he has grown up in since his parents were doctors.