Sunday, December 20, 2009

Syndromes and a Century


Syndromes and a Century touches reality only tangentially – like a dream, or a memory. Nothing in it is “un-realistic” so to speak, and nothing that happens is fanciful or even especially dramatic. The film, directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, begins quietly and maintains this peaceful air for about an hour. A female doctor is interviewing a male doctor, asking him questions that will pertain to his job – as well as a few curveballs. Both doctors leave the room and walk out onto the deck of the clinic, a pleasant little building deep in the country. The camera pushes forward to frame the meadow behind them, and remains on this composition as they leave the picture and their indistinct chatter continues softly in the background. A feeling of nostalgia, of a deeply buried connection one cannot quite put a finger on, may wash over the viewer. If one gets into this groove, the movie flows along quite nicely, like a calm boat ride down that river in Wind in the Willows. However, as in that story, there’s a Wild Wood – and a Wide World – on the horizon, distant as that possibility seems while enjoying the quiet pleasures of this opening.

Some of the first half's quirkiness wears a little thin but for the most part it's charming - and the atmosphere evoked is blissful. Despite, or perhaps because of, this light charm, the film feels somewhat slight. There are moments dipped in melancholy, as when the female doctor recalls a disappointing crush that ended in disappointment, when the man sought her advise on pursuing another lover. Other moments mix sadness and the fleeting, sweet spirit of happiness. A dentist who doubles as a singer operates on a monk and the two banter back and forth; later on, after a summer festival on the clinic grounds, in which the dentist crooned a love song to the small crowd, there is a reunion with the patient. The dentist reveals his indirectly responsiblity for a brother's childhood death; gently, he wonders if the monk could perhaps be his reincarnated sibling. Meanwhile, the crickets chirp, the stars quietly crown the country sky, and the wood porch creaks in the warm breeze, as the two men softly discuss the mysteries of the universe.

And here we abruptly leave the quiet little clinic and find ourselves in a big urban hospital. Same female doctor, some male applicant - or at least they are played by the same actors. The interview is repeated, now in a clinical, sleek, but somewhat forbidding room. Almost all the dialogue is identical, and yet something is different. The subtle sense of relaxation which existed in the earlier scene is now extinguished, and indeed the same testy flirtation does not emerge between the two. When the interview is over, they part ways and that's that. Likewise, the following scenes mirror sequences in the first half, yet always with a difference: two monks who playfully teased the female doctor in the opening, scold an unresponsive medic in the corresponding passage here; the dentist operating on the monk is doing so in what appears to be an assembly line of oral surgeons, all heavily masked, their patients masked as well (the monk keeps removing his, the dentist frustratingly puts it back on). In the latter case, no conversation emerges at all, and a potential connection is missed.

After this, the plot unfolds in a different direction - characters emerge with little to no correspondence to anyone in the first half, as if in this new world new approaches to living, even new people, must be conceived. A moody boy with mysterious ailments bounces a ball endlessly against a wall. An older woman, experienced at dodging the rules of the hospital, sneaks some alcohol into a back room and shares it with others. A doctor sneaks a make-out session with his girlfriend in a hidden corridor of the gigantic building - gone is the almost innocent romance of the first half, replaced by embarrassed erections and spicy but noncommittal necking (the woman asks him to move out to the country with her, and he refuses to give her any answer). At one point, the woman shows the man pictures of a new facility being built out in the provinces: the photos show a wasteland in which impersonal tubes and pipes are sprouting from the ground. It's almost as if we're seeing the shadow image of the peaceful rural clinic, or perhaps the real, unromanticized version of nature and civilization meeting face-to-face.

In its final minutes, the film becomes almost abstract with Weerasethakul's camera slowly pushing in towards an ominous pipe in some forgotten backroom of the hospital. It's an Eraserhead moment, except that all the machinery here is shiny and new - almost disturbingly inhuman (if also, at times, strangely beautiful). The film's final note is one of frenetic silliness; otherwise, the second half establishes a somber, mournful mood, often at odds with the characters (who certainly don't seem self-conscious about inhabiting this world; rather, they take it for granted). Weerasethakul has apparently called the film a meditation on the meeting of his parents, who first encountered one another in a rural clinic. The viewer will never know this, however, and the inspiration serves more as a spark and a guide for the filmmaker, who proceeds to reflect upon not just vastly different locations, but the way these locations interact with - and transform - the human soul. All of which sounds potentially pretentious and self-serious; certainly, at times Syndromes and a Century teeters on the brink of gimmickry. In the end, the sense of place is acute enough, and the conceit compelling enough (and there's enough humor) for the ambitious film to achieve its desired effect. Syndromes and a Century is enigmatic, but in all the right ways. One emerges from the film as if waking from a dream, not knowing exactly what one saw or how it meant, but nonetheless feeling that a deep emotional state was revealed and that somehow this strange, at times enticing, vision reached closer to reality than anything in waking life.

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