Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat)

by Michael Barrett

21 January 2008

Weerasethakul's films ". . . demand patience and close, quizzical attention, they are also generous, unpretentious and funny, posing thorny formal questions in a relaxed, democratic spirit . . ."

I caught Blissfully Yours at the 2003 San Francisco Film Festival, where it was one of my favorite movies, and that year the Village Voice chose it as their favorite undistributed film of the year. It took a few years to get to DVD but finally came out in 2007. A word of warning, however, it’s exactly what some people think is wrong with arty festival-fodder and non-English “foreign movies” in general.

Nine out of ten viewers might run screaming from the theater, or the DVD player, during the first two or three reels of this slow, lengthy Thai film. Fingers will be itching for the FF button. Take a deep breath and go with it. These long passages are supposed to be excruciating, or at least taxing. The film is in two parts and has a city-to-country dynamic. The first part introduces us to various characters in the city, and the camera watches them unblinkingly in real time as they go through with their mundane tedious errands, such as jobs, doctor’s appointments, dealing with bureaucracies.

cover art

Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat)

Director: Weerasethakul, Apichatpong
Cast: Nantarat Sawadikkul, Jaruchai Iamaram

US DVD: 15 Jan 2008
UK DVD: Unavailable

One doctor’s interview seems to have its content recycled from the filmmaker’s experiment in documentary, Mysterious Object at Noon, which travels around the country asking people to make up the next part of a continuing story (an idea based on Andre Breton’s game Exquisite Corpse). This doctor-interview thing is a recurring element for Weerasethakul, whose parents were doctors, and it’s also in Syndromes and a Century.

Anyway, Blissfully Yours suddenly indulges an aesthetic shock that I prefer not to describe, and from that point the characters are having a picnic in lush forest. Now the film becomes a hushed, sensual, dreamy escape amid leaves and lakes. You can almost feel the breeze, sniff the leaves, and doze under the languid sun. The film becomes spellbinding almost in the literal sense. This is our reward for sticking it out, and without that set-up it wouldn’t mean so much. Within this structure, there’s also quite a bit of sharply observed character moments, emphasizing the mysteries of personality, hidden yearnings, and of course bliss. The implication is that this wildness is our true context, where our natures dissolve to their essence.

Weerasethakul adopts the Middle Distance aesthetic of many festival darlings who watch their characters play out graceful or enervated non-dramas in unbroken takes—see the collected works of Jim Jarmusch, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Theo Angelopoulos, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Sang-Soo Hong, and Abbas Kiarostami. Of course their styles can’t all be lumped together and reduced so baldly, but these artists set themselves in opposition to the dominant style of Hollywood narratives. They tend to alienate the viewer and encourage detached contemplation rather than try to “suture” us into the drama. David Bordwell famously identified a Hollywood style of narrative and a European style, with Yasujiro Ozu’s style belonging to its own genre; I think today’s Middle Distancers are the East-meets-West merging of Ozu and Antonioni rather than the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times says Weerasethakul’s films are “are at once stubbornly difficult — resistant to summary, at times even to understanding — and surprisingly warm and gentle. Unabashed art films that demand patience and close, quizzical attention, they are also generous, unpretentious and funny, posing thorny formal questions in a relaxed, democratic spirit. It is possible to feel . . .that you just don’t get, on a conscious, cerebral level, what Mr. Weerasethakul is trying to do. Yet at the same time you find yourself moved, even enchanted, by the beautiful, oblique stories unfolding before your eyes.”

Let that bring us to Syndromes and a Century, which inverts the city-to-country dynamic by beginning in a rural hospital. It begins with a female doctor (Nantarat Sawadikkul) interviewing a male doctor (Jaruchai Iamaram) in some kind of job application. As she goes about her business, she continually crosses paths with a young man who finally confesses his agonized love for her. She leads him outdoors to a picturesque table near a large Buddha and begins to tell him, in flashback, about a handsome young botanist (Sophon Pukanok) who invited her to his farm and the pleasant day she spent visiting him and his sister (Jenjira Pongpas). She dips her fingers into a cool lake, hears a story about a magical treasure and an eclipse, and finally is asked by the botanist for advice on what to do if you’re secretly in love with someone. “Is it a man or a woman?” she asks him playfully.

Meanwhile, a second narrative is going on at the same hospital. A young male dentist (Arkanae Cherkam), who also sings folk songs, seems to be interested in getting to know a young Buddhist acolyte (Sakda Kaewbuadee) who accompanies an old priest. They exchange conversations in a developing relationship, shading possibly into romance. Then something enigmatic happens and the movie indulges in an unanticipated shift, which I’ll only describe on the condition that you, Dear Reader, either don’t read it or promptly forget it.

The movie starts over again, more or less with the same characters, but now in an urban hospital. The first several scenes are repeated with variations, and often with the camera now placed in the position 180 degrees reversed from before. In other words, where the first version watched a scene from one character’s angle, now it’s from the opposite angle.

Six characters remain in common. The old priest is there. The female doctor and her admirer are present but no longer central. The dentist never makes any advance on the young Buddhist, perhaps because of the presence of an assistant. The central character of this portion is the young doctor who was being interviewed about a transfer. He goes into the basement of the building, where construction work is underway and wounded war veterans undergo therapy. With its winding corridors and shadowy scaffolds and dropcloths, it’s clear that a building/brain metaphor is happening here, for the basement is where the unconscious desires of the characters are revealed.

The young doctor tries to chat up a young man suffering from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. A middle-aged therapist tries to perform some kind of “chakra” treatment on the man, asking him to imagine a forest with a stream, dipping his hands into the water and sucking it into his system to cleanse him. This is one of several scenes where Weekasethakul breaks the fourth wall, in this case by having one character gaze knowingly into the camera. This scene not only harkens back to the young woman’s trip to the farm but to the ostentatious moment near the end when a large pipe in the basement sucks up what might be smoke or noxious fumes into its black vortex.

I honestly have no idea what this film is doing by this point, nor is it a problem for me. Weerasethakul has begun with perfectly straightforward if sedate narrative lines and, while we weren’t noticing, shifted into abstraction, an intuitive series of scenes perhaps illustrating the relative confusion of the city environment, where the human brain houses myriad frustrated impulses, as compared with the more open possibilties of the country. In the city, the woman doctor seems to be dating her admirer, and these moments take place on a high floor where the windows look out upon the sky. The characters in the basement are a sad lot.

The whole movie seems also to be a meditation on the question asked by the botanist: how do you express yourself to someone you love? The director has stated that the film has its origins in memories or imaginings of how his parents met, but as a talking-point this is deceptively concrete and actually explains nothing. Scott again: “Its coherence is evident; it is too lovely and lucid to be frustrating or dull. But it takes place just on the other side of conscious apprehension.”

Despite this movie’s rich, novelistic sense of detail and its beauties of composition, Scott may be giving some viewers too much credit for what they won’t find frustrating or dull. If some are frustrated by the lack of traditional direction, by the diffuseness of the narrative, by the rejection of linear storytelling, I can only say that the movie understands that cinema is closest in form to music rather than drama, fiction or any other art.

The moving images, existing in time like music, ebb and flow in movements like a symphony, using narrative ideas as motifs that conjure feelings in the viewer. Even the Variety reviewer, picking up on the fact that this film was funded by the city of Vienna as a part of a project celebrating Mozart’s 250th birthday, observes that the movie could be described as a fugue-like play of repetitions and variations. The soundtrack itself, including score, is generally hushed but the sound mix has a constant ambient quality, more soothing in the country and more buzzing in the city, akin to the David Lynchian inner-ear effect.

No, I can say something else: I caution you, Dear Reader, against imagining that traditional Hollywood narrative, as identified by Bordwell and recognized by every one of you, necessarily avoids the abstract in favor of linear cause-and-effect. This is frequently an illusion created through editing, as well as certain bits of shorthand in plot and dialogue that link dramatic ellipses through character by-play. No film in 2007 was more abstract than Live Free or Die Hard or Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End. Compared with these fine and vigorous fabulations, Syndromes and a Century is a model of narrative rigor.

Thus the movie can be watched many times, just like listening to a CD, not in order to see what happens next but in order to absorb its emotional under- and overtones of exquisite longing. Despite its web of loneliness and missed connections, the film isn’t without hope. Rather than depress us, it seems to want to open our minds to healthy possibilities in a way that bypasses conscious understanding. If all this sounds vague, here’s Variety again: “By the end, nothing much has happened, but all the same, pic casts a witchy kind of spell with its deep-breath pacing and undertow of unspecified malaise.”

This will irritate some viewers. Others will find Weerasethakul a brave explorer of narrative forms and the value of the moment. I believe that if viewers understand what they’re not letting themselves in for, they can easily fall under the spell of this extraordinary, patient architect of serenity. He’s prolific, too, for aside from the films already mentioned, he’s made many shorts as well as other features (all unseen by me), including a gay romance called Tropical Malady (also on DVD from Strand) and something called Adventures of Iron Pussy about a transvestite secret agent! Let’s hope that one comes to disc soon.

Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat)


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