Max Carpenter on Syndromes and a Century
A bright harmonic drone emerges over black screens and logos. Breezy, chirping field recordings fade into my headphones as the film opens on spindly, swaying trees in an all-too-familiar standard-definition transfer. I know well the placid country hospital scenes that soon follow, but it’s hard to experience them now as the supreme novelty they once represented to me. In the years since I first watched Syndromes and a Century its essence and form have become inseparable from a then unknown-to-me lineage of world cinema auteurs—influences like Hou Hsiao-hsien and adherents like Miguel Gomes. Right now, I am holed up with my MacBook during a pandemic that feels nothing if not outside of time, trying with some focus to revisit my infantile impressions of a work of art that reframed my world.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century was one of seven films commissioned for a 2006 Vienna festival celebrating Mozart’s 250th birthday, though the Mozart connection is at best a loose funding angle. Put plainly, Syndromes is a diptych of hospital vignettes, the first part apparently set in the 1960s and the second in the film’s present. The same actors appear as the same-aged characters in both parts, an approach which, along with a switch from a rural to a more urbanized hospital environment, sparks meditation on alternate realities and subjunctive what ifs. Scenes are slight and narrative motion is mild—Dr. Toey tells a monk to avoid eating chicken to improve his joint health, an older doctor sips anxiously at brown liquor in a basement awaiting an evening television appearance. Familiar faces and friendly banter glue the happenings into a cogent and heartful whole. I couldn’t have told you much of anything about the plot 13 years ago, though, as my experience was built from abstract emotional impressions.
Back in 2008, when I first watched the film on DVD with my brother in his attic bedroom, my taste for film was less a passion and more a quest for cultural curios, a suburban search for transcendence via psychedelia, uncanniness, and torturous imagery. It was crucial to me that my early cinematic excursions were social, so my brother suffered through anything I brought home, from Eraserhead to Even Dwarfs Started Small to Faces of Death. He didn’t care for Syndromes, but I could feel afterward that my life had been altered. My silent bafflement felt seismic. I most likely tendered a few insecure words of affected praise for Syndromes while my brother doubted my earnestness. He was similarly doubtful of my newfound love of the British electronic music duo Autechre, and while that may seem a left-field parallel, I still associate the searching that brought me to Apichatpong with outré music much more than cinema.
I’m not sure I even categorized Syndromes as being recognizably cinematic. Its structural logic felt rhythmic, exciting and new to me. It seems especially pertinent that I first found out about the film from a DVD listing on the Manchester-based music retail site Boomkat. (That my local rental store, Videoport, happened to have a copy on hand is an elegy for another time.) Music—specifically electronic music—had by 2008 taken such a hold over me that I cannot imagine high school without the expansive tribal beats of UK dubstep or the refined kicks of German techno, not to mention myriad timbres: the squelching warmth of Roland 303 basslines, the microtonal wrinkles of vintage synths, the circuit-bending free jazz of noise. Headphones, car stereos, the volume always maxed out, this art experience felt supreme and total. An aimless nighttime car drive blasting a Basic Channel CD became my personal Gesamtkunstwork. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí and Derek Jarman’s Blue—films that we might call “through-composed” for their music-propelled defiance of narrative logic—were, for me, far more enticing entry points to cinephilia than the likes of the French New Wave or Classical Hollywood.
The echo tones and fluttering tree leaves that open Syndromes play like externalizations of a dream. The trees lead into two straight minutes of seated male doctors. As Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), in dead-on close-up, answers friendly job interview questions like “Do you prefer triangles, squares, or circles?” the quiet rawness of the dialogue blends into the soundtrack as though an ASMR video were synced with one of Irv Teibel’s environments LPs. Apichatpong has two of the best ears in cinema, and his films are all the more nuanced for it. In the first half of Syndromes the muted background of singing insects and birds (layered over tinny room tone) could hardly be called pristine or enveloping. The patter of occasional conversation, gentle whether bureaucratic or flirtatious, never overpowers the ambiance. Four minutes into the film I can already appreciate the spaciousness and quasi-documentary simplicity that would have endeared my head-in-the-clouds 16-year-old self. Ambient sounds, dreamy transitions, and preference for human faces over narrative momentum lend Syndromes a remarkable directness of expression.
Syndromes being a Thai film wouldn’t have meant anything to me at first. After the fact, when I searched the web for information about “Space Bucha,” a group credited with the film’s hyperactive closing credits music, I found nothing whatsoever. (Even now the band has no online presence save for a single song credit to its name on Discogs.com.) Thai culture very quickly showed itself to be outside of my virtual reach. Apitchatpong’s tantalizing homespun web of collaborators was by no means commodifiable. His go-to sound designer, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, seems as crucial to Apichatpong’s early sonic footprint as Alan Splet was to David Lynch’s, though to date I’ve never read any assessment of this relationship. Syndromes features the additional contribution of Bangkok-based composer-designer Koichi Shimizu, who provides the reverb loop clusters that open the film and bolster its urban back half. I feel positive that even in 2008 my mouth fell open as Shimizu’s bristling industrial score imbued a slow dolly shot through a smoky hospital nothing-space with mourning and humanity. (While researching for this essay I stumbled across Shimizu’s sole album release, 2015’s Otolary, a sadly neglected atmospheric beat feast that could easily have been released on a chic indie UK label like Planet Mu or Skam.)
Presumably like many, I am vulnerable to a form of myopia that can set in when a work of art really hits home for me, a tunnel vision that allows me to believe the artists in question are supreme kindred spirits living markedly parallel lives. In my stupor after first seeing Syndromes and a Century, I might as well have echoed the words of a woman Tarkovsky says wrote to him after The Mirror: “My childhood was like that…Only how did you know about it?” Like Apichatpong, I am the child of doctors. My earliest memories are set in the white hallways and food courts of Boston’s Mass General before my parents relocated to the greener pastures of coastal Maine. Even the characters’ off-hand musings about their past lives—a common syncretic thread through Apichatpong’s oeuvre—seemed to square comfortably with the yoga-spiritual agnosticism of my liberal upbringing. I would not yet have said I loved Syndromes, but as a believer in a crackpot brand of synchronicity I felt this film was a communiqué to me directly from the heavens.
In the half dozen times I’ve seen the film since, my solipsism has frayed, my taste has broadened, and my geographical sense has complexified. My pubescent obsession with escapism has given way to interest in the world beyond me. While it didn’t much affect me in my teens I’ve since come to melt under the spell of the singing dentist Ple’s heartfelt on-stage crooning, an event which I now understand to mark a core juncture in the film—this may well be a sign that the film’s stealth politics work better on me. Although Apichatpong is rarely taken to simply performing his nationality, Ple, with his passion for luk thung (Thai country) songs, represents a clear bridge between a waning strain of Thai culture and the film’s meditations on urban metamorphosis.
Years spent cynically helping to write art grants I don’t believe in and groveling for tax-deductible donations from the uber-rich have almost deadened me to the simple and beautiful fact that so much of the art I vie for is, at its core, a meaningful pushback against the shit; in Apichatpong’s case the shit he is up against is loudly manifest. He has grappled with his fair share of domestic censorship, most notably due to overtly homoerotic and graphic sexual scenes in Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, but the censorship he faced with Syndromes is particularly ludicrous: the removal of kissing scenes, drinking scenes, and shots depicting monks playing with modern technology. Thailand has since, through a 2014 coup and junta, proven even less hospitable to his work—Cemetery of Splendour still has yet to screen publicly in the country—and Apichatpong recently wrapped production on his first non-Thailand feature, Memoria, shot in Colombia.
Fenced in from the east by the three most heavily bombed countries in history (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—all thanks to America) and from the west by a more flashy and genocidal military regime (Myanmar), Thailand is resilient in our delusory national consciousness as a land of gap years and enduring tropical peace. Stories of the censorship and eventual filmmaking-exile of Apichatpong from Thailand has kept me concerned for this corner of Earth on a personal level. Far away from the prime movers of international film culture an off-the-grid life is both within reach and slowly fading. Gestures as benign as a day’s journey through the jungle to a stream are rendered acts of political resistance by dint of being escapes from organized society. Apichatpong makes potent use of nature retreats and gambits like song and scene repetition as part of a personal alphabet of disconnect—disconnect from a state that rejects his expression as well as from capitalist alienation and ugly architecture. His political struggle against present-day adversities is easily relatable to anyone who’s not a fascist lemming, but there’s also a distinctly Thai struggle in his characters’ predicaments and his films’ engagement with historical phantoms. Though Thailand once resisted colonialism and carried a vague promise of socialist hope—for which it was targeted by American intelligence operations—part of the country’s current tragedy lies in its cookie-cutter descent into ideological factionalism and military rule, qualities which threaten to quell a rich cultural specificity. There’s a crude but familiar absurdity in the oppression of a voice like Apichatpong whose main crime, to outsiders, would seem to be that his films are irreverently chill.
Too many discussions of world cinema proceed as if cinema were an imperfect one-way teleportation device, as though by laying our eyes upon an image of a lush grass field or a windowed industrial sky bridge we are kissing the ghosts of far-off places, but no, these are not places. They exist nowhere beyond the lightning-in-a-bottle instant at which they are captured by the camera. There is no map with an arrow drawn between me and my laptop and the countryside of Thailand, and if there were it would be a complex series of body-mind diagrams, one for me and many for the crew behind Syndromes, for we are all on an impossible quest to escape our own physical prisons, to create new post-spatial realities. Even as I can read fruitfully into the film’s location and politics its gist remains otherworldly, confounding art-as-communication or art-as-transport paradigms. To ask of Syndromes what it is saying or where it takes us misses the mark; I may just as well ask what I am saying with my entire being or where I am headed.
A life spent with art involves a dizzying amount of lens-switching. Sublime stuff hits first in the gut before the head can give a reason. Cinema has usually been a medium where, in the aftermath, language comes easy even when my worldview is fuzzy, but not so with Syndromes, or any other Apichatpong works for that matter. An enlightened simplicity reigns, and the temptation to internalize the experience as a religious one is strong. These are films where the audience leaves in a silent trance, perhaps muttering “incredible” to one another while some frustrated slow-cinema-averse viewers cut briskly through to the exit. I am far from alone in my fervor for Apichatpong, a fact that is as mysterious as it always is when intensely personal artists strike a popular chord. His humbly rebellious style has proven to be more approachable and mimicable than those of slow-cinema forebears like Hou and Tsai, and any present-day festival slate worth its salt will reflect his measurable impact on cinema’s most exciting players, from Anocha Suwichakornpong to Affonso Uchôa.
As a non-artist, though, I feel a more quotidian love for Apichatpong and his ability to deeply affect me in a way that I rarely find beyond my favorite records, but Syndromes imparted something deeper still, something more central than a guarantee that cinema can fleetingly match the immediacy of music. Faith is an alien virtue these days, no less faith in an angsty hybrid art form. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the throne room.