Thai experimental filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, “Syndromes and a Century,” shares a structural tactic with two of his earlier films: the film is split into two halves, which present the same story in two different versions. The first version is set in a rural hospital in the recent past. Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) is interviewing an army doctor, Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), who is applying for a job as a surgeon. (Weerasethakul claims that the story is based on his parents, who were both doctors.) The film wanders, in a very leisurely fashion, through several related stories, including Dr. Toey’s memories of an almost-romance with a handsome orchid farmer, as well as her attempts to treat an older Buddhist monk who, feeling guilty about having tortured chickens as a child, now has dreams that chickens are chasing him. A young dentist, Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam), develops an erotically tinged friendship with his patient, the handsome young Buddhist monk Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee).
In the second version of the story which forms the film’s second half, the setting is now a more modern hospital in a city. Instead of concentrating on the story of Dr. Toey, we follow Dr. Nohng, and meet his pretty young technology-obsessed girlfriend, who wants him to move with her to a new high tech city. (It doesn’t seem likely that he will.) Dr. Nohng meets Dr. Wan (Wanna Wattanajinda), an older woman who likes to take a drink to steady herself for her weekly appearances on public television. He tries to strike up a relationship with Off (Putthithorn Kammak), a young man suffering acutely from carbon monoxide, but the young man seems too ill to relate to other people.
While watching this film, a viewer is more likely to be absorbed by the film’s amazingly rich texture, extended time-sense, and it’s nuanced sense of the flavor of ordinary moments, then he will be to look for overt meanings or interpretations. The beautiful, sun-drenched panoramas of the first half, and the oppressive hospital interiors of the second half create their own inescapable senses of reality in the extremely extended takes and slow editing rhythm. In the long pauses between lines of dialogue, we can feel the quiet reality of people breathing, thinking, feeling, sharing time and space with each other in a way which is probably more authentically lifelike and absorbing than any other filmmaker has ever been able to capture. The quirky meanderings of the plot suggest an open-ended mode of existence, in which strange, unexpected things just seem to happen, because, well, that’s the way life is.
It was only immediately after seeing the film, when, as the events of the film changed from being observed realities into being memories, that the didactic meanings of the film suddenly became overwhelmingly clear to me. A veritable flood of messages seem to pile up in my brain as the credits began to roll, as if the film’s message and point of view had been spelled out in enormous block letters. Although my view of the film changed on the spot from “slice of life with no particular message” to “film with a strong, clear, forceful message,” I still feel the film is open-ended and ambiguous enough that any ten people could easily come up with ten different messages. Here, then, for whatever it’s worth, are the messages that suddenly seemed so clear to me:
The film looks at the same story in two different versions, rural and urban, because it is comparing the sicknesses and strengths of these two different worlds, whose stark division defines the previous century. In fact, in the scenes which are most nearly paralleled in the two versions, such as the opening job interview scene, the camera point of view of the main shots is generally reversed, as if, quite literally, the film is looking at the same story from an opposing point of view. The setting of hospitals and clinics identifies illness as a major theme, yet the film constantly seems to be asking “who’s treating whom?” Dr. Toey tries to treat the older monk for his arthritis and feelings of guilt, but the monk responds by offering her an herbal tea which will ease her worries about money. (Worries about money are one of the ills of rural life emphasized in Part One.) Another of the ills of rural life is lovesickness, as in Dr. Toey’s young admirer who is so in love that he can hardly stand up straight, yet rural life also seems to offer many unexpected opportunities for people to make deeply personal connections with one another, such as Dr. Toey’s romance with the orchid farmer, or the dentist’s friendship with the young monk. The young monk, despite his assurances that he is just like anyone else and would rather be a DJ or run a comic book store, really does offer spiritual guidance and comfort to the dentist, who (reminiscent of the older monk with the chickens) feels guilty because, as a child, he urged his younger brother to climb a tree, and the boy subsequently fell and died. In general, spiritual life in the countryside seems rich and rewarding, and offers much help to the scientists and doctors of the clinic. An older woman at the orchid farm has been injured by a motorbike accident, but the rich mud of the countryside is gradually healing her wounds. An exercise group at the hospital offers slow motion movement which seems to induce meditative calm and quiet health.
By contrast, in the city version of the story, every one seems sequestered and cut off from human contact by the encroaching technology. In the country version, the dentist, who is an amateur singer, serenades the young monk as he examines his teeth, turning the treatment into a touching personal encounter. But in the city version, he tries to cover the monk’s face with a surgical mask. (The monk declines to wear it.) The encounter remains resolutely impersonal. Here, the older monk diagnoses the doctor’s problem as being “lack of kindness.” In this version, sex seems much more easy and available (as in Dr. Nohng’s relationship with his girlfriend) but love and closeness seem impossible. Poison gas from a car factory has ruined young Off’s brain so severely that he can only imagine feeling well in his next life. Dr. Wan tries to heal him using a chakra-based meditation technique and through a direct transfer of healing energy by laying her hands on his head and neck, but it doesn’t seem to help him.
Finally, mysterious workmen seem to be wrecking the hospital from underneath. Along with ominous sustained chords, a strange gas fills the hospital. An enormous tube with a gaping black hole is luridly shown either sucking up or spewing out the gas. In the film’s final shot, in a parallel with the exercise class from part one, we see a mass group aerobics class in the park, in which mindless fake cheerfulness, consumerism and conformism have replaced the ancient spiritual disciplines. Life in the city, while financially healthier, seems to be on the verge of succumbing at every moment to a spiritual emptiness which threatens to suck all spontaneity, joy and individuality out of daily life.
The very fact that the moment-to-moment textures of “Syndromes and a Century” are so densely real in their minimalism that they make you suspend all interpretation and simply exist in the present, is in and of itself the film’s strongest weapon in it’s argument that we need to transcend the deadening, compartmentalizing effects of modern life, and find our way back to a more open-ended, more breathable and heartfelt way of living.