I was led to believe before I rented Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century that I chose an avant-garde picture, a description (warning?) that prepared me for everything the film wasn't. It's an odd movie, yes, with an original structure that matches Last Year at Marienbad for temporal uncertainty, but I found myself thinking of Ozu, not Brakhage: particularly in the film's first half, set in a rural clinic in the Taiwanese countryside, the director inserts numerous pillow shots of the beautiful, tranquil landscapes. Bifurcated into two distinct but vaguely identical stories, Syndromes links a rural medical clinic in the 1970s, the decade in which the director grew up, with a hospital in the present, obviously the world he lives in now.
In the first half, Weerasethakul focuses on Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul), a young but capable and experienced young doctor who runs a local clinic. She interviews Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), trained by the military and seeking to find a civilian job, and he's too nervous to see Toey's attraction to him. An shy orderly, Toa, pines for her, but she's too busy to notice. During her rounds, she attempts to collect an overdue bill and contends with a monk who complains about aching joints, recommends she take an elixir he concocted to regulate menstruation and transparently attempts to con her out of medicine for his order. Weerasethakul's direction is mostly static, simply taking in the precisely blocked interiors and the lush fields surrounding the area; so serene is his style that, when he cuts to Toey's nostalgic flashback of her dalliance with an orchid specialist, one can barely catch the shift.
A subplot, alternately humorous and revealing, concerns a dentist who moonlights as a the king of Taiwanese country music karaoke and a monk who once dreamed of becoming a DJ. The dentist sees something of his dead brother in the monk, and an inexplicable attraction occurs between the two. Is it romantic, Platonic, something else entirely? I'm not quite sure; the director moves away from this setting without providing closure for this story, nor for Toey's love triangle.
At this point, almost the halfway mark, Weerasethakul shifts from this clinic in the '70s to a modern day, state-of-the-art hospital in Bangkok. In a bold move, the actors are the same, as are the characters and most of thedialogue, but the director tweaks the scenarios, reversing the mise-en-scène of previous shots to create a warped mirror image. Compared to the earthen tones of the clinic and the fertile greens outside, the hospital is hyper-sterile white, that level of emptiness that can blind. Nothing can hide against such a lack of color, so the personalities of the characters stand out harshly from each other. Toey interviews Nohng without the hint of sexual tension; Toa still loves her, but now he's even more withdrawn; and where Toey let him down gently with her aside about the orchid specialist, here she's more direct.
The second half plays almost like a humanistic 2001 (but not Solaris, which is more or less just that): the stark white interiors certainly evoke Kubrick, and the faint buzzing of the soundtrack enhances the mechanical feel. The patients of this hospital have access to the highest-quality care, but it comes in the form of prosthetics and equipment, mechanized parts attached to human flesh. Perhaps off-put by the shift in tone, the camera frees itself from the tripod, roaming the hospital in floating tracking shots and pans, occasionally moving away from the characters altogether, circling around statues or wandering into hospital rooms. In one vaguely haunting scene,Weerasethakul listens to staffers conversing in a basement before panning up to the ceiling and scanning ventilation shafts bathed in an eerie glow from the fluorescent light hitting some sort of steam, which looks ice cold though its vapor. Eventually,Weerasethakul makes his way to a vent/vacuum sucking up the steam, its pure black maw set harshly against the blinding white around it and a subtle callback to an eclipse in the first half. As the camera pushed in closer and the entire screen turned to black with wisps of white steam flowing into this humming machine, I wondered if somehow this was the portal between two worlds, linked through a symbolic eclipse, at which point I vowed to invent a time machine to go back and kill Tim Kring before he put these ideas in my head with that awful Heroes.* The film then ends with Nohng's girlfriend -- he has a girlfriend in this half -- telling him about a hospital opening up in a newly developed area, and the photographs of just-begun construction perhaps show what the clinic of the first half looked like as it was being built, though that half occurred 30 years earlier.
For something that may sound pretentious, Syndromes and a Century is always unassuming in its approach, and often pauses for moments of light comedy. In Toey's flashback, the orchid specialist takes her to his home and apologizes for the mess, but the only wrinkle in an otherwise pristine dwelling is a disheveled stack of some notebooks which he quickly organizes unnecessarily. In the modern hospital, Nohng sits back as one of his patients practices Chakra on another, and they drink from a bottle smuggled into the ward in a prosthetic leg. Even in the serious moments, such as they are,Weerasethakul is more curious than anything; his film, even in the frigid second half, reflects the giddy nature of budding romance, neither the desperation of unrequited feelings nor the upliftinghurrah of true love.
Weerasethakul says that the film is a tribute to his mother and father, both physicians who met while working in the same hospital, and his take on the beginning of their relationship. The first half, in which Toey is the central character, is idyllic and warm, set in a fertile landscape; the second, spotlighting Nohng , is cold and passionless. Subdued, slightly comic sexual tension abounded in the first half, but the hookups of the second are carnal and loveless, a means to fulfilling a mutual desire. Is Weerasethakul then commenting on the duality of women and men, between nurturing, complex, life-bearing femininity and whitewashing, gadget-obsessed, emotionally impatient masculinity? Perhaps, but the story of both halves is far too touching and ethereal to damn or praise one above the other; besides, Syndromes and a Century says, with its minute variation between the two segments, that our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.
This sort of experimental autobiography at times recalls the work of Charlie Kaufman, not least its usage of an orchid thief, but Weerasethakul is not so self-reflexive and consciously arty. I watched this shortly after revisiting Russian Ark, that bold one-take experiment, and it made for an interesting double bill: both are lilting dreamscapes, unmistakably cinematic yet magical and hypnotic enough to make us forget the lines between reality and fiction. Russian Ark used its style to chart Russian history through its art, even in unorthodox ways such as the envoy of the Shah of Iran formally apologizing to Nicholas I for the death of a diplomat. Syndromes of a Century, though, cares about life itself, and the intertwining of separate perspectives uses the now-commonplace style of memories-as-narrative storytelling to depict a quiet account of the beauty of love. The most experimental aspect of this film is its willingness to tell such a story without the emotional climax we all crave.
*If I went back in time and killed Tim Kring, preventing him from writing the show that would one day piss me off so much that I built a time machine to kill him, would I suddenly have no reason to have built the machine and then strand myself in the past, or would I cease to exist altogether? Would I be able to get the current me laid or would we be merely twice as sad?