Syndromes and a Century

(Sang sattawat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria, 2006)


There is no Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to be heard anywhere in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, even though it was commissioned by Peter Sellars for his grand New Crowned Hope project – both a celebration and a reinterpretation of the composer’s legacy – unveiled in Austria in 2006. This work by the gifted Thai director, however, did indeed find its inspiration in Mozart’s The Magic Flute: the sense it communicated to him that the gift of life is something mysterious and magical, something to be thankful for at every moment.


Across the span of his feature films, numerous video shorts and a growing list of installation pieces since 1994, Weerasethakul has established himself as the most distinctive pantheist of contemporary cinema. Life is not only a gift in his work; it is something holy, and it trembles with intimations of the divine. The spirits of the deceased are everywhere in his films, inflecting and influencing the course of earthly events. And those earthly events themselves tend to follow a magic logic: stories break off, repeat, start over, loop around, forming a striking pattern.


It not so much the fictional characters – as touching as they are, and as real as Weerasethakul renders their concentre presence – that determines this pattern of life and history; rather, it is nature, always beaming, breathing and pulsating at the heart of his oeuvre, that takes on the overarching, driving role. In Syndromes and a Century, as in his previous films, it is the Earth itself which seems to speak to us, giving evidence of its life-force.


Syndromes gathers together childhood recollections of Weerasethakul’s parents, who were both doctors in Khon Kaen in northeast Thailand. The film is structured into two parts (a form the director has used before). The first half follows Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) as she consults with patients, interviews new hospital staff, deals with the advances of a persistent suitor, and recalls a previous relationship.


The second half follows Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), a new recruit to the hospital. His trajectory introduces us to a different, hitherto unseen part of the building: a physical therapy ward, where we observe people who are severely damaged (both physically and mentally), and the various methods, traditional and modern, used to treat them.


This section builds to a disquieting ending in which (as in so much Weerasethakul) nothing really happens plot-wise, but an almost horrific atmosphere is evoked: very palpably here, we sense the uncalm spirits of the dead, the roken and the forgotten.


Weerasethakul has spoken of his films as the attempt – poignant, almost desperate – to give form to his memories before he loses them, or before he dies. However, Syndromes is no ordinary autobiographical memoir; as always, Weerasethakul gives himself ample room to invent, play, drift off the original idea or plan.


Although Toey and Nohng cross paths at the hospital where they work, this is not the story of their union and marriage, or the birth of their son – as Weerasethakul has amusingly remarked, once his mother and father had tied the knot, the narrative interest is over! Instead, we see the various relationships, tentative or physical, consummated or unrequited, that they form with those around them – a serendipitous journey that takes us into many intriguing situations and places.


In Weerasethakul’s distinctive way of filming – his characters are almost always seen in long shot, static or contemplative figures in a landscape – we feel (as during Toey’s rural idyll) the living power of nature. Sound design takes extraordinary prominence in his cinema: as in the work of Pedro Costa or Terrence Malick, “surround” sonic atmospheres are meticulously gathered, recreated and layered. The artifice that cinema technology provides is just as central as – indeed, inextricable from – the worship of nature.


Weerasethakul’s films are not especially graphic, but they possess an erotic charge that is unique in contemporary World Cinema. Partly this is because of the director’s wisdom and generosity: sex is simply a part of nature and life, and everyone, young or old, is taken up in the vital currents of Eros. There is a splendid matter-of-factness in the way Weerasethakul depicts and discusses sexuality: the older Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) counsels Toey about the need to move her interest in Noom (Sophon Pukanok) to the next, physical level; and a scene of passionate kissing between Nohng and his girlfriend Joy in his office ends with the disarmingly frank shot of the bulge in the good doctor’s trousers!


But sexuality also has a more diffuse, fluid, secretive character in Weerasethakul’s cinema. It is entangled with the spiritual movement of past lives, which respects no social propriety of gender, age, race, class or status. It is also part and parcel of the profession of doctoring: Weerasethakul speaks of how much he cherishes the memory of watching his parents at work, in a situation where a certain amount of touch was permissible between doctor and patient – even between an ordinary citizen and a holy person!


Syndromes and a Century is, in this sense, a less heated, less melodramatic or hysterical version of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). In both films, a man and woman (already married in Kubrick, soon to be married in Weerasethakul) travel separate paths, each exploring the ambiguities of desire, fantasy, and intimacy – indeed, Intimacy (or, even better, Intimacy and Turbulence) was a working title for the project.


All of Weerasethakul’s films contain traces of their own making – indeed, his splendid video Worldly Desires (2005) is entirely a behind-the-scenes, making-of document, except that the film we see being shot was merely a set-up or pretext for Weerasethakul’s many, eavesdropping video cameras and microphones placed among the crew and cast. Yet, his aim is never to break the illusion or disrupt the concentration of the viewing audience, as occurs in much tired, Brecht-influenced art. Weerasethakul has commented that, for him, the making of a film – the thousand tangential and ephemeral sights, sounds and interactions it generates – is always more vibrant, more interesting than the finished, sealed-off work.


That is why the mostly non-professional performers he uses are deliberately, sometimes comically, in excess of her fictional roles: if Arkanae Cherkam as Pie, the dentist, has a thing for singing, then the film will indulge his fantasy and highlight his song skills – even during dentistry scenes!


And it is also why – in a signature Apichatpong moment early on – when his characters wander off-screen and keep conversing as the camera frames the surrounding landscape, eventually the talk comes around to bother of having to wear a microphone.


It is from such seemingly banal or incongruous details that the expanded vision of Weerasethakul is woven.

MORE Weerasethakul: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

© Adrian Martin January 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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