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Light of the Century
Genevieve Yue on Syndromes and a Century
“There are two trees. One represents my father’s story. The other represents my mother’s story. They grow together, and other stories grow out of them too.”
The English translation of Syndromes and a Century’s Thai title, Sang sattawat, which means “light of the century,” sounds atypically grandiose for humble filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a reference perhaps to the illuminating presence of cinema, which corresponds roughly to the beginning and end of the 20th century, or maybe the medium’s digital successors that cast their own kind of light onto an uncertain 21st. If anyone should carry this torch, there’s none better than Weerasethakul, who, at 39, has already crafted a body of films that easily rank among the most important of recent years, if not decades, and whose own hybridities and seeming contradictions—a Thai sensibility mixed with American film school, a love of syrupy pop ballads combined with an appreciation for experimental film masters like Andy Warhol and Bruce Baillie, and the cache of an international art phenom who returns time and again to his country boy roots—speak to the ever-shifting conditions of a globalized, but in no way homogenized, world. The film’s English title, meanwhile, suggests something different, something more elusive. The word “syndromes” registers as indirect and circular, the wafting effects of a malady rather than its core affliction. In this way Syndromes looks around more than it looks directly at; set in hospitals, the film contains multiple scenes of diagnosis and treatment, with doctors and patients alike tending to each other’s troubles and aches, and trying everything from chakra channeling to talking cures to ease their collective burdens. Syndromes of and for a century: ailments, perhaps, but also a form of cinematic light that brightens a shared condition, a dimming past we leave behind, and a faint glimmer of what lies ahead.
Syndromes is like the fever dreams of an illness, or, perhaps more fittingly for Weerasethakul’s films and installations, the flushed cheeks and rampant fantasies of a love sickness. It’s structured by the overlapping stories, spaces, and times of its central figures, Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), who we see meeting twice over in hospitals in rural Khon Kaen and the sprawling Bangkok metropolis. These are portraits of a sort, characters caught in glimpses from around the corners of long corridors or in the suspended passage of an elevator. Weerasethakul has described the film as an imagined reconstruction of his parents’ lives in a time before he was born. The first half, which takes place in a country hospital and focuses on the dalliances of Toey, is dedicated to his mother, while the second, set in contemporary Bangkok, loosely traces the paternal through Nohng. Radiating out from each of their stories are the wanderings and desires of various people they encounter. A gesture, a glance, a few words: it doesn’t take much to draw the camera’s eye, which seems always ready to follow someone new along one of the film’s many detours. As Nohng admits to Toey in the first of their job interviews, he wants to work at her hospital “to see faces come and go,” and the film shares this same longing to see not only the story of the future couple’s meeting but everything that happens around them.
While Syndromes is ostensibly about Weerasethakul’s parents, it also concerns itself with many images that depart from this main thread: a wild and root-tangled orchid filling up the backseat of a car, pleading looks from not-so-distant admirers, a nearly limbless man dragging himself with his single arm across a sterile white floor, and furtive sips of liquor taken from a bottle hidden in a prosthetic leg. The deliberateness of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s slow tracking shots, particularly pronounced in the second half, masks the film’s promiscuity; in one of the most quietly astonishing scenes, the camera fixes on Toey, Nohng, and a hospital colleague as they walk down the hall, gossiping idly. Instead of following them into the depths of the basement, however, the camera changes course, or rather steers forward, drawn to the open balcony view of lush green fields and the jungle just beyond it. The audio track, meanwhile, keeps pace with the doctors until they finally break character and joke about the number of takes they’ve already done, “playing the same scene over,” and admitting they’ve forgotten to take off their microphones. The reflexivity of this moment isn’t simply about Brechtian distanciation or postmodern glibness; instead, as the film’s title is unobtrusively layered onto the landscape, it recognizes the filmmaker’s own desire to experience the fullness of the medium’s sensual pleasures, here offered to the viewer as a resplendent gift.
Each of the film’s diversions leads to another, but Syndromes is hardly a weightless dérive. As a twice-told tale, it is split down the middle, the break occurring almost exactly at the film’s halfway point, but it’s also more than that, with echoes and anachronistic artifacts, repeated phrases and flashes of primary color woven through each section to suggest myriad connections hidden beneath the surface. Those that complain that the film is without plot could not be more mistaken, for Syndromes is replete with narrative. Aside from Toey and Nohng’s burgeoning relationship, there’s Toey’s timorous suitor, Toa (Nu Nimsomboon); a meandering and unresolved memory of Toey’s former love interest, the orchid grower, Noom (Sophon Pukanok); Nohng’s petulant girlfriend, Joy (Jarunee Saengtupthim) who urges him to move to an industrial complex; and a sweet flirtation between the dentist who moonlights as a country singer, Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) and Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee, previously seen in Tropical Malady), a young monk who sometimes wishes he had become a DJ. Scenes fold over each other and repeat, and with each accordion crease another story is drawn in, recrudescent symptoms blossoming, new worlds opened.
As with Weerasethakul’s earlier films, Syndromes includes references from his prior work: the sunlit Khon Kaen examination room is the same as the one in Blissfully Yours, and the ecstatic mass aerobics sequence at the end recalls a similarly energetic exercise in Tropical Malady. Perhaps the most significant interlocked moment between Syndromes and the latter is the story of the two farmers in the jungle, who, visited by a mystical monk, are given a harvest of silver and gold. In Tropical Malady, their greed is met with their riches turned to toads; in Syndromes, the monk’s visit coincides with a solar eclipse, and the farmers are eventually murdered for their wealth. “This is a powerful place,” breathes Pa Jane (Jenjira Pongpas), the limping servant who tells the story to Toey during her visit to Noom’s farm in another of the film’s narrative digressions left unresolved. It’s clear that the jungle is fertile ground indeed, Weerasethakul’s natal home and the source of his imagination, the place where stories emerge and then fade back into darkness.
Weerasethakul often chooses the phrase “conceived by” over “directed by” for his credits, and though that’s not the case with Syndromes, the film takes on a more pointed meaning of conception all the same. Its palindromic structure—“a mirror in the center that reflects both ways,” as Weerasethakul has said of Tropical Malady, whose narrative is similarly cleaved—extends to the inverse relationship he sets up with his parents. Just as they conceived him, so too does he conceive them, and lovingly conceive of them. Like “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz’s midcentury story of cinematic imaginings around the circumstances that led to the author’s birth, Weerasethakul returns to and inhabits the places that preceded and shaped him, namely hospitals and jungles, as well as the times, from the 1970s of his early childhood to the present day of his adult life. Where Schwartz’s narrative drives to its anguished, overdetermined outcome, however, Weerasethakul keeps the spaces of his filmmaking open, inviting chance and collaboration in his signature blend of fiction and documentary. Accordingly, his first feature-length film, Mysterious Object at Noon, follows the structure of the exquisite corpse, a surrealist party game where successive parts of a story are fabricated by a series of tellers, each unaware of what came before. From this, unforeseen connections emerge in Mysterious Object, namely transformation, magic, and animal spirit possession, and these not only complete its narrative daisy chain but also pervade Weerasethakul’s later works. In life, “we always change course,” the filmmaker has remarked, and his films demonstrate an unusual willingness to travel headlong down forked paths to their shadowed unknowns.
As with Tropical Malady’s narrative metamorphosis from a human romance to a supernatural fable about a tiger, Syndromes trafficks in its own reincarnations, from the remorse an elderly monk expresses over his boyhood torture of chickens who have come back to haunt his dreams (Toey counsels him to stop eating so much poultry), to Dr. Ple’s certainty that Sakda is the manifestation of his deceased brother, to the recurrent situations and characters that feel at once predetermined and improvised. Even the twinned dialogue represents a form of rebirth created through incomplete repetition and slight variation. With the psychological tests Toey conducts in each of the film’s beginnings, for example, Nohng is caught off-guard with the question of what “DDT” stands for. “Do we have to know that here?” he wonders, then guesses in English, “Destroy Dirty Things.” (According to Weerasethakul, this is a response his father actually gave when asked the same question.) As Toey writes in her notebook, Nohng leans in and offers up another possibility: “Or is it Deep Down To You?” The second time, in Bangkok, Nohng pauses again. “Destroy Dirty Things,” he says, now close-up, and looking directly into the camera. This time around he seems more certain, and the cut to Toey’s face, also close-up and immediate, shows an expression of mild surprise and bemusement, and within that, the subtle hint of recognition. With these series of questions the film gives birth to itself midway through; it starts over, but not without a vague sense of what’s come before. Instead of narrative causality or rigid linearity, however, Syndromes moves in both directions across its two-way mirror, each traversal slightly different from the last, the traces of which have mostly vanished in a forgetting that causes even the viewer to sometimes second-guess a character’s sudden and unexplained re- or disappearance. It would be easy to imagine these crossings in binary terms splitting city and country, past and present, or science and folklore, but Weerasethakul resists the substitution of one extreme for another. Instead he mixes together and multiplies the dualities, less concerned with rupture or dis-ease than of living with and through difference.
It is ironic, then, that such a generous, capacious cinematic vision has drawn as much controversy as it has in Thailand, where upon the film’s release the government demanded the excision of four scenes. Two of these involved monks either playing a guitar or flying a toy spaceship, and the others depicted a doctor drinking on the job and another doctor kissing his girlfriend in his office. While such moments hardly reach the indignity of monks being chased by ghosts in mainstream Thai horror films, or reports of their sexual misdeeds and drug abuse in the popular press, Syndromes was singled out as the first film to be actively censored by the state, which was then under control by the military following the 2006 coup d’etat. Weerasethakul also made history as the first filmmaker to refuse to cooperate with censors, and chose instead to remove his film from circulation in his home country. After launching the Free Thai Cinema Movement to protest the censorship of Syndromes, he participated in a government-sponsored seminar to discuss the new Film and Video Act then under consideration, which, among other measures, proposed the nation’s first-ever ratings system. Weerasethakul’s disappointments with the bill, which has since passed, were severe. Lamenting the government’s expanded power in determining what movies upheld nationalist pride and “moral decency”—the state could now officially ban a film— he concluded that his participation had been merely that of a “referendum puppet,” and that with the institution of the bill, “we are making a pact with the devil.”
Though deeply attentive to political issues such as illegal immigration (Blissfully Yours) and the nation’s military past and present (Tropical Malady and Syndromes), Weerasethakul wasn’t a vocal activist until the storm surrounding Syndromes; his subsequent works, notably the Unknown Forces installation and the multiplatform The Primitive Project, have been more explicitly polemical. The former questioned the unthinking cheeriness of Thai cultural attitudes while pitting those views against the tenuous existence of day laborers in the country’s northeast region. Meanwhile The Primitive Project, a collection of installations and short films, takes place in Nabua, Weerasethakul’s ancestral home and the place where, in the 1960s, soldiers plundered the village on suspicions of communist activity. Those that survived the brutal attacks fled to the forest and disappeared. Reading backwards, the historical dimension of short films like A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, part of The Primitive Project, adds a darker, more urgent strain to Weerasethakul’s various retreats to the jungle, and possibly also the ambivalent sanctuary of the hospital, the site of both sickness and healing, and a place where so many people enter and exit this world.
The outlook for independent Thai cinema may be bleak, but Weerasethakul builds a space of resistance within his own films. When in 2007 I interviewed him about Unknown Forces and the censorship of Syndromes, he was working on a still unrealized project provisionally entitled Utopia, a journey through a wintry landscape linking futuristic sci-fi exploration to a beating prehistoric heart buried under the snow. Utopia is a fitting title; between past and future, fiction and reality, Weerasethakul again positions his viewers in a space of optimism, or at least its humanistic aspiration. It is not a stretch to say his films imagine better worlds, yet they do so not by ignoring the existing one, but by alerting us to the potentialities that lie within its bounds. I know of no other filmmaker who is so generous with space, granting his audience the freedom to move about, look around, linger where they may, and pass on through.
Here may be where Weerasethakul’s training as an architect is most powerfully realized; as with the enveloping screens of his installations, he invites his viewers into the room, but does not demand they surrender to its images. His films breathe—like the wind that moves through the tall, gently swaying trees in Syndromes’ first images or the arboreal metaphor he uses for the film’s branching narratives. In the end, the stories that grow out of Syndromes’ central pair include our own. As Dr. Neng (Apirak Mitrpracha) remarks to Nohng during their descent down the stairs of the Bangkok hospital, the camera trailing them in a rare handheld shot, “The basement is reserved for military patients: war veterans and their relatives.” “Everyone is a relative,” Nohng remarks, and Neng laughs. “I know, small country, huh?” More than the oppressive state apparatus that looms over every aspect of Thai life, or the afflictions and phantom limbs nursed in this subterranean vault, we are all, in Weerasethakul’s cinema, touched by the same longing: seeking to recover something that’s been lost, or reaching for something that’s still to come, in the next life, a new body, another twist of the tale. It’s not always clear what shape our shared lives will take—Toey and Nohng’s love affair, after all, has yet to begin—because that’s something left for us to determine. Syndromes is much more about providing ample ground for its narrative seeds to take hold and sprout, as when Toey stands at the window, a framed black-and-white photograph of a woman on the bookshelf behind her, and a view of the green fields outside superimposed onto her pensive face. Like so much of the film, the scene is captured in a long take which allows us to not only see what’s before us, but to look around and feel out its contours. Here in this moment of extended bliss, we see in and we see out, forward and back, from the hospital to the jungle, to the world beyond, a new world: the shining light of the century.