Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Syndromes and a Century (2006) ****
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Arkanae Cherkam (Ple), Jaruchai Iamaram (Dr. Nohng), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Sakda), Sin Kaewpakpin (Old Monk), Nu Nimsomboon (Toa), Jenjira Pongpas (Pa Jane), Sophon Pukanok (Noom), Nantarat Sawaddikul (Dr. Tei), Wanna Wattanajinda (Dr. Wan).

The more films I see by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the more in love with them I become. I had somehow avoided his films for a decade, before seeing his strange, haunting Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year. Entering that film new to Weersethakul I was both enthralled by the film and confused by it. Going back and watching his previous films – first Tropical Malady and now Syndromes and a Century (2006), I find it easier to get on Weersethakul’s rhythm (I look forward to seeing his breakthrough film, 2002’s Blissfully Yours at my earliest convenience). I could say that Syndromes and a Century is my favorite of his films so far, but perhaps that’s just because it’s easier for me to accept his films now for what they are – odes to romantic longing and innocent eroticism where the past, present and future all collide in films that operate on a dreamlike logic.

Syndromes and a Century, like Tropical Malady before it, is really split into two different films, although each half informs the other. We start at a rural hospital set some 40 years in the past, where a female doctor interviews the most recent addition to the staff. Some of the questions are related to medicine, and some seem to be completely out of the blue “Do you like squares or circles? What color would you want the circle to be?” etc). Then as these two doctors walk out of her office and down the corridor, the camera pans away from them and looks out the window longing – at a beautiful forest and a lovely little house. The doctors and their conversation remain on the soundtrack, but are rendered unimportant by Weersethakul’s daring camera move.

It may help to know that Weersethakul sees this as a movie about his parents, who were both doctors. But then again, it very well may not, because the plot, as much as there is one, isn’t really about these two doctors falling in love. In fact, they don’t fall in love at all. Another man is in love with the female doctor we see at the beginning of the film, and in a scene where he confesses his love for her, she instead of accepting it, tells him the story of the man she once loved – an orchid salesman, who was in love with someone else. There is also a delicate story between a dentist and a young monk, who bond over their love of music. Yet in a scene where we sense these two circling each other, in the same gentle, innocent eroticism on display in the first half of Tropical Malady, the dentist admits he thinks that the monk is his reincarnated brother.

The second half repeats much of what happened in the films first half – yet this time in a modern, urban hospital. We open with the same interview between the female and male doctor, but this time the questions and answers are slightly different – the camera holds her in its gaze, instead of him, which is odd considering while the first half mainly followed her after the interview, this second half mainly follows him. Once again these two characters don’t get together, and instead we see the male doctor with his photographer girlfriend.

The two halves of the movie tell a similar story, but highlights the difference between the time and place in which they take place. The innocent story of unrequited love and gentle longing, set in a beautiful area where Weersethakul concentrates on the nature around the hospital, is replaced by something slightly courser in the second half (and erection makes an appearance in the second half of the film, but notably not the first). People are not connecting to the same degree in the second half. Instead of shots of the beauty of nature, Weersethakul shows us the duct work of the hospital.

But, as with all films by Weersethakul, just when I think I have it all figured out, he pulls the rug out from underneath us. What are we are to make of how he chooses to end his film, which is a large outdoor aerobics routine led by an enthusiastic instructor and then gradually pulling the camera back to see hundreds of people following along? It is a mystery to which I don’t think I’ll ever find the answer to.

But, in the end, it is that mystery that makes Weersethakul’s films so mesmerizing. These films are deliberately paced, with camera shots lasting minutes on end, slow pans and close-ups. In them, Weersethakul explores the mysteries of human nature, love, desire, lust and so much more. It is what makes him one of the most original filmmakers working in movies today.

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