Thailand / France / Austria, 2006
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 27 September 2006
Source Fortissimo Films 35mm Print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
Reviews: Mysterious Object at Noon
Reviews: Blissfully Yours
A doctor and a monk face each other across a desk in a hospital examination room. The monk tells the doctor of some bad dreams he has been having about chickens, which leads him to recount the cruelties he afflicted upon chickens when he was a child. Inquiring about his patient’s diet, the doctor discovers that the monk is suffering from an excess of uric acid, a result of eating too much chicken, which is in turn affecting his sleep. With this problem solved, the tables are turned. Offering the doctor a small pouch, the monk instructs the doctor to make tea from the dried herbs inside, that this tea will clarify his thoughts and stop him from remembering too much.
The films of Apichatpong Weerasthetakul rest upon a series of juxtaposed extremes, both thematic (the rural and the urban; the spiritual and the everyday; youth and age; the two halves of a romantic relationship) and structural (shot-reverse shot editing; contrasting colors; bisected structures). These binaries are not notable or unique in cinema but for the way in which they form and inform nearly every aspect of his films, often creating the sole source of tension in works that otherwise have none, works that meander laconically, meditatively with very little incident. This also extends to the principle generic opposition in Apichatpong’s films: their position precisely between narrative and avant-garde cinemas.
Typically we walk into a 105-minute film, the kind with actors in specific roles and a screenwriting credit, with the expectation that we’ll be told a story. But in Apichatpong’s films, this expectation is continually thwarted. Characters exchange dialogue and glances in a meaningful, even occasionally portentous manner, but seldom do these moments cohere into anything resembling a conventional narrative arc or pattern. Instead, the structure of his films more closely resembles that of an avant-garde work — the kind without actors in specific roles or a screenwriting credit — emphasizing the very manner in which the film is constructed, calling attention to what it might be telling or implying ontologically, through its editing or camera movements, or through its simple lack of conventionality.
What Apichatpong offers with his new film, Syndromes and a Century, often seems like an exotic, more polished, and higher budget version of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, albeit with multiple locations and characters, and an even less dramatic plot. Opening rather inauspiciously in the office of a young female doctor in a remote, rural location, the film quietly follows her routine interactions with other doctors, patients, and a local orchid farmer, concluding with a parallel (or inverse) section that follows some of the same characters and events as they transpire in a shiny, modern facility in Bangkok. In the course of the film, several tentative plot-threads arise, including a discreet flirtation between the winsome Dr. Toey and the orchid farmer, a crush that another member of the hospital staff develops for the doctor, the budding friendship between a monk who wants to be a DJ and a dentist who wants to be a singer, and the routines of Dr. Nohng, who has newly arrived to the hospital. But none of these strands materializes into any great source of tension within the film, but instead function as tiny moments of contemplation or islands of memory, many underscored with quiet emotion (such as Dr. Toey’s teasing chatter with her farmer friend, or Dr. Nohng’s withdrawn talk with his girlfriend about the future of their relationship), others simply floating and meditative (like the camera’s silent contemplation of trees, fields, public statues, and hospital equipment).
True to Apichatpong’s characteristically languorous mode of filmmaking, these narrative units gain most of their significance through their comparison with other contrasting elements in the film, as in his last film, Tropical Malady, in which a gently budding romance in the first half of the film metamorphoses into a mysterious square-off between a hunter and a wild animal in the second. In Syndromes and a Century, these contrasts seem to point to as many similarities as they do differences; Dr. Nohng’s job interview with Dr. Toey plays out with the same dialogue in the urban setting as in the rural, but it’s a touch less nervous; interactions between the monk and the dentist are warm and intimate in the country and more coolly procedural in the city. These pairs of scenes function not so much to illuminate jarring opposition as to express the harmonious, but distinct relationship of their different elements. They also test our memories.
If all this sounds soporific, it is, and as in Blissfully Yours, this is partly the point. Apichatpong is not particularly interested in creating value-laden contrasts here (as in, setting up the urban setting as restrictive and the rural as liberating), nor does he seem to be intimately concerned with the multiple facets of a single story or event, as in Rashomon or, more recently, Hong Sang-soo’s The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. Rather, Apichatpong emphasizes how something like one’s environment inscribes itself in a story or a memory, and how different environments reveal similar, but distinct aspects of one’s behavior. On a wholly formal level, this is illustrated in the film’s use of color: the saffron-colored monk’s robe contrasting with the deep greens of the jungle in the first section, and with the dentist’s office’s clean whites and gray-blues in the second.
But on a thematic level, Syndromes and a Century’s most consistent concern is its characters’ desires and how they reveal or conceal them. The film’s press kit notes the interesting, but by no means revelatory fact that Apichatpong’s film is based on the memories of the director’s parents, both doctors, about the days before they were married. Love creeps quietly through the background of the film, if only occasionally, faintly voiced by the orchid farmer as he nebulously tells Dr. Toey of an infatuation he has with “someone,” by the shy hospital staffer who spies on Dr. Toey from behind a giant statue of Buddha, or by the dentist as he sings a traditional love song to the befuddled monk who waits prone and expectantly in the dentist’s chair. Apichatpong’s patient, observant camera seems to be lying in wait for the moments in which these desires break through the surface, when the interior reveals itself externally, when the spiritual greets the mundane, much like a monk in a doctor’s office, complaining of bad dreams and an excess of uric acid.