Syndromes and a Century
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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