Friday, October 30, 2015

The Favorites - Syndromes and a Century (#83)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Syndromes and a Century (2006/Thailand/dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) appeared at #83 on my original list.

What it is • Two doctors meet, a man and a woman: she is interviewing him for a job at the hospital. They discuss his military history, he mentions he plays basketball, she asks him to hold out his fist (I've never quite been clear on why - to test his nerves?), and she asks him what "DDT" stands for (the best he can do is "Destroy Dirty Things"). This happens twice in the movie, at the beginning and then again halfway through. The first time we tend to stay closer to the woman when the interview ends, the second time we stick mostly with the man. In both cases, we also spend time with other characters in the hospital, and in a few cases scenes are repeated, or rather echoed with slight differences. As each half moves along, however, they grow further and further apart, creating a sense of a fork in the road in which the two paths lead in very, very different directions. Oh, and I've neglected to mention one crucial detail. The hospital of the first half is a rural clinic, surrounded by sun-dappled ferns and characterized by an easygoing, pleasant mood. The hospital of the second half - despite the presence of the same characters - seems to exist in an alternate universe: it is a massive structure with white walls and ceilings, heavily staffed and located in the heart of a city. This clever dual structure provides the skeleton of Syndromes and a Century's structure, but the meat on those bones is composed of individual moments: humorous and poignant character interactions, lingering shots of people and places, near-abstract depictions of afternoon eclipses in the countryside or ominous tubes sucking all the smoke from a basement room. Syndromes and a Century exists primarily to absorb us in a sense of space, or rather two very different spaces.

Why I like it •
I have always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of city and country, so Syndromes' parallel structure already has me hooked. But even if it only existed as that first half set in the balmy, blissful clinic, I would love it. There is no overarching story here, though there are many small stories scattered throughout, which the film's leisurely pace and open-ended approach allow us to explore. The second half is more unsettling, not quite as charming as the first and that's certainly the point. The characters seem less comfortable with themselves, their environment, and one another, and the constant buzz of the metropolis, the flowing crowd, the windowless rooms, set both them and us on edge. Yet Weerasethakul also finds interest and excitement in this manmade jungle, carving out memorable interactions and capturing beautiful, unforgettable images of the warped machinery and stark design. Like Satantango, Platform, and Celine and Julie Go Boating, Syndromes and a Century creates a loose, energized structure to evoke a sense of openness and endless potential. These are films that open up a dream space and then let us wander inside of it, leaving us with a richer sense of wonder for our own world once they have ended.

How you can see it • Syndromes and a Century is available on DVD from Netflix. I wrote a full-length review as part of my "Best of the 21st Century?" series. This initial viewing inspired me to collect screen-captured frames from the movie in my very first visual tribute (something that has since become a common feature for this blog). If you haven't yet been won over by my description of the film, I invite you to look at those pictures: in this case images really do speak louder than words. A clip from Syndromes and a Century appears at 0:35 in "Falling into the Future" (the final chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" series).

What do you think? • Do you see many parallels between the first and second half of the film? Do you prefer one location to the other, or enjoy both in different ways? Are you absorbed into the world of Syndromes and a Century or do you find yourself restless? Have you seen any other Weerasethakul films and if so, which is your favorite, and why? Do you see a "Lynchian" element in the film's dual structure, offbeat character interactions, and moody shots (that close-up of the pipe comes to mind)? Does the film remind you of dreams, in it sense of shifting location and identity? If you are familiar with Thai history or contemporary society, what connections do you see in this film (the Thai government censored the movie, and in protest Weerasethakul inserted black leader and silence for the entire duration of the four deleted scenes)? Are there any other films you can think of that have a similar feeling of openness and exploration?

• • •

Previous week: Raging Bull (#84)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You've convinced me. This one has been on my watching list for a long time. Will watch it today.
Thanks.

Joel Bocko said...

Hope you like it! I've only seen this and Tropical Malady so I have a lot of Weerasethakul to catch up on (Uncle Boonmee in particular seems to be a favorite for many). But he and Jia Zhangke are two of my favorite modern filmmakers for the way they mix the fantastical and the mundane, the meta and the microscopic.

eddiezr said...

Is the effect Lynchian, or is the film simply emulating--or imitating--David Lynch? I haven't seen many films attempting to emulate David Lynch's distinctive style, probably none, at least not since Oliver Stone's terrible rip off TV show, Wild Palms, or David E. Kelley's corny Picket Fences which was far inferior to Twin Peaks.

Whenever anyone cites Lynch as an influence for a film it usually signals, for me, that the film is less than original and probably derivative and even tedious. If the dual settings are meant to evoke a sense of opposite, opposing experiences of reality isn't the device a little heavy handed and obvious? It sounds like it is from your description, but maybe I'm just projecting my own prejudices. I'll check it out, though, and I really hope I'm proven wrong.

Joel Bocko said...

I haven't seen Picket Fences or Wild Palms but my understanding of them is that to for rather obvious and wide-appealing "Lynchisms" like oddball characters and patterns of speech or shots of random objects, etc. In other words they attempt to ape the feel of the mood of Lynch by copying certain characteristics of his style. The only shot in Syndromes and a Centruy that feels Lynchian to me is the long dolt into to an ominous pipe which is sucking in smoke. Other than that, the film operates on an entirely different register than Lynch's work. The atmosphere is more mellow than intense, the photography is generally distanced and quasi-objective than Lynch's subjective style (especially in his later work, although he does like wide, long master shots in Twin Peaks they tend to have a different feel from. Weerasethakul's). When I drew the comparison to Lynch I was thinking largely of structural or conceptual parallels, not a particular aping of Lynch's distinctive voice. Another important distinction to keep in mind is that Lynch, for all his twists, turns, and subversions is still a narrative artist, particularly employing elements of mystery and melodrama in his work. This is less true of what I've seen of Weerasethakul, particularly this film which is far more concerned with collecting moments than unfolding any story. In that sense it's far more non-narrative than any of Lynch's features, even Inland Empire - from that angle at least it might make more sense to place Weerasethakul closer to someone like Chantal Akerman than Lynch. Long story short, I can't guarantee you'll like Syndromes and a Century but I would be surprised of you found it too emulative of Lynch!

Joel Bocko said...

(Sorry for the typos - sent that from my phone)

Joel Bocko said...

Also, it would probably be better to say the split locations "embody" a sense of opposite experiences of reality rather than "evoke" it, an important distinction. In other words I don't think the film is trying to pose an intellectual puzzle, using the locations as stand-ins for ideas. Instead it's a sensual experience first and foremost and any attempts to "make sense" of that experience comes after the fact. Weeasethakul immerses us in two very different senses of place and what's important is less the meaning we apply to that than the direct sensation of being in those two places. Writing about the films always brings to mind the adage "dancing about architecture" so I hope I haven't fallen too much into the trap of allowing interpretation to obscure the phenomenon of the work itself.