Syndromes and a Century
2007Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast: Jaruchai Iamaram, Sophon Pukanok, Nantarat Sawaddikul
his fourth feature by Thai filmmaker (and Art Institute of Chicago MFA) Apichatpong Weerasethakul is another allusive, elusive, and bifurcated narrative—like its predecessor Tropical Malady, it tells two consecutive stories with (what seem to be) the same key characters in a different setting. Syndromes adds the repetition of a few scenes, sometimes with similar dialogue, or just similar activity (interviews, lunches, exercise therapy) in different contexts seen from new angles. The movie’s structure is a puzzle, because the obvious dualities of each act—female/male protagonist, rural/city location—don’t set up sharp oppositions or make grand statements. Framing his characters with lush vegetation like Malick, then antiseptic white corridors like Antonioni, Weerasethakul, conveniently self-named “Joe” for Western followers, doesn’t offer themes as commonly decipherable to Western eyes as the transcendence and disaffection of those established cinema artists. This, as you may have guessed, means that I really haven’t figured out what the hell this often lovely and habitually withholding sphinx of a film is expressing. It’s a quieter, shorter but scarcely less idiosyncratic specimen of Rorschach cinema than Inland Empire.
Syndromes begins as a sort of low-key, slyly absurdist comedy, as rural clinic supervisor Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) conducts an interview with army doctor Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), who’s joining her facility’s staff. The questions move quickly from the prosaic to psych-testing: “What is your favorite shape? How big a circle? What color would it be?” Sitting silently nearby is a young man with an apparent crush on Dr. Toey, who patiently waits for Nohng to leave, then presents her with a gift of crispy pork. (An equally awkward proposal is not long in coming.) Cut immediately to Toey trying to diagnose the first of the film’s saffron-robed monks, who attributes his joint pains to being haunted and possessed by chickens that he tortured as a child. (The doctor coolly suggests that his syndrome could be explained by excessive eating of chicken.)
Besides reincarnation and humans’ identification with animals, other regular Joe motifs here include illness and examination, musical performance, mythology (a parable on greed that also appeared in Malady), and surreptitious passion (Nohng and his ladyfriend make out near a hospital window until he tents his pants, one of several scenes that has led to an impasse with Thai censors). The naturist Joe chronicles Toey’s romance with a tree orchid expert (Sophon Pukanok) who brings her to his farm for a good-humored idyll; a solar eclipse accompanies the legend on avarice; and the achy monk presents his examining doctor with curative herbs.
While there isn’t a neat Warm Country/Cold City dichotomy in Syndromes, the closest it comes is in the encounter of the rural facility’s singing dentist with a monk who confesses he aspires to be a DJ (Sakda Kaewbuadee, the syrupy lover and menacing shapeshifter from Malady). In the country half, the monk is serenaded while he gets his teeth drilled, and in a later scene talks intimately with the dentist about guilt and death. When they meet anew in the Bangkok half, there’s an assistant on hand and hardly a word but “rinse” is uttered.
The director’s past as an architecture student takes over in the second half as he prowls the gleaming hallways of the city hospital where Nohng moves through his duties, pans the statues of medical pioneers and manicured lawns outside, and eventually moves to the building’s bowels, his camera gaping at insulation and ceiling pipes, finally drawn into a vent sucking a roomful of steam into its maw. A baroque moment worthy of Inland Empire or L’Eclisse, but a frustratingly disconnected one. Similarly, an amusing scene finds Nohng chatting in a prosthetic ward with a pair of older women doctors, one of whom pulls a bottle of liquor out of an artificial limb to prep for a TV appearance. But a disturbed youth Nohng has failed to connect with enters the room, and the dotty doc solemnly tries to heal his chakra as the camera dollies back, lingering on the thinly smiling face of her colleague. Meaning? Joe’s dualities can feel more like a shell game.
Recently re-viewing Tropical Malady, I got an actual shiver in the climactic fixation on the stare of its existential ghost-tiger antagonist. That (literally) vaporous image near the close of Syndromes and a Century didn’t shake me in any way I can explicate in connection to the rest of its promiscuous narratives, at least not on a first look. Joe is only 36; perhaps he was anointed as a leading international auteur a few films prematurely. Antonioni didn’t become “Antonioni” until he was nearly 50; his singular, monumental visuals seemed to perfectly capture urban anxieties of his era. But Weerasethakul’s images, as individually compelling as some are, often seem unmoored here from significance to an audience that hasn’t read a ream of interviews on his inspirations and beliefs. As a watcher of people and spaces, he carries us with skill scene by scene, but moving away from the vagueness that distances Syndromes shouldn’t necessarily imperil his languorous rhythms.
Syndromes and a Century is currently in limited release.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-05-16