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Film Friday Essay

Why not continue?: On the many stories of “Syndromes and a Century.”

The cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of stories growing out from and intruding upon other stories. In his debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, the director combines fiction and documentary to indulge in a Surrealist exercise, an exquisite corpse game, in which one story is appended to the end of another without attention being paid to coherence or logical progression. His next three films are all bifurcated to some degree: Blissfully Yours, which commences with a hospital visit and an extended car journey, until its title sequence plays 45-minutes into the picture, then it recasts itself as a languorous and elongated picnic, a kind of ecstatic pastoral; Tropical Malady, too, is structured in two parts, one a tentative queer love-story and the other a fantastical Buddhist fable, divided near-enough down the middle with the separate sections commenting enigmatically on each other. (I’ll come to Syndromes and a Century‘s doubling later on.) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong’s Palme d’Or winner, is for the most part about that same Boonmee who doesn’t actually do much recalling of his past lives at all, with interruptions from a tale of a Thai princess, whose ‘engagement’ with a catfish is likely more famous than the film itself. And, most recently, in Cemetery of Splendour—a certifiable masterpiece—a group of soldiers fall into a sleeping sickness caused by the ghosts of warring kingdoms. Wherever Apichatpong’s films present one story there are many more beneath, above, adjacent to, or in some way hidden from the centre, only to reveal themselves in a manner that feels utterly unique to the director.

Syndromes and a Century is alive to and filled by the contours of the director’s experience, much of the film feeling like a kind of memory play. Apichatpong wrote that the film was inspired by the lives of his mother and father, both doctors, in whose workplace the filmmaker grew up. The first part is set in a rural hospital in Khon Kaen, in the north-east of Thailand, and adopts the perspective of Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul), who stands in for the director’s mother; the second takes place in a larger hospital complex in Bangkok, this time taking the perspective of Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), a transplant for the director’s father. Both characters exist in both settings, one taking place years and miles apart from the other. In each instance, the first scene is one in which Toey interviews Nohng for a position in the hospital.

It would be easy to suggest that there’s a dialectical structure being employed here, that the film operates by accumulating opposites, and that the viewer’s task in watching Syndromes and a Century would be to produce a synthesis of the two halves in order to fashion a whole. No. I won’t suggest such a thing. It’s a film of conjunctions rather than conflicts: Toey and Nohng; country and city; heterosexual desire and queer desire; static shots and camera movement; long-takes and montage; natural soundscape and musical score.

The Khon Kaen portion begins by observing Dr. Toey’s activities in her practice, watching her advise (and deal with the insinuations of) patients: one of whom, an elderly monk, tries to prise prescriptions from her for symptoms he doesn’t suffer; in turn, he gives her a plant root, telling her to boil and consume it so as to forget her problems. One of those might be the shy insistence of Toa (Nu Nimsomboon), a colleague, that they get married. (Before they’ve shared much of a conversation, Toa spots Toey in the waiting room of the hospital, and, petrified, ineptly attempts to hide himself from her behind a water-cooler—which is mirrored in the Bangkok part of the film, where Toa tries to avoid detection behind a statue of the Buddha.) They sit down to talk, not before passing a model of a swan that marks an important part in Tropical Malady. Toa explains his passion for Toey, who mortifies him by commenting more upon her hunger (to be fair it’s her lunch break) than his infatuation. He asks if she’s ever been in love, a question he ends up regretting, because it sends her (and the film) into a reminiscence of her furtive romance with an orchid farmer, Noom (Sophon Pukanok).

Toey’s almost tryst with Noom is neatly balanced in this part of the film with another hesitating, and perhaps unexpected, romance. A monk, Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee, Tong from Tropical Malady), is visiting a dentist, Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam), and the two fall into polite small-talk. Sakda relates his interest in music, claiming that he almost became a DJ; Ple, in his spare time, sings Thai country music. While investigating the monk’s gums, Ple sings. Sakda is politely bemused, asking “is this a check-up or a concert?” It’s both and yet one thing more: it’s a declaration of attraction. (And a happy fact this is, too: as one half of the lovers in Tropical Malady, he is always being ignored. Everyone, even an aerobics instructor from a considerable distance away, manages to hint at or state unequivocally how attractive Tong’s partner, Keng (Banlop Lomnoi)—who also plays Itt in Cemetery of Splendouris. They are all correct, he is beautiful, and how Keng carries his beauty so casually is both one of Tropical Malady‘s greatest pleasures and one of the film’s best jokes; but it’s nice to see the less celebrated party become the object of desire this time.)

As Toey remembers Noom, she also recalls Noom’s mother, Pa Jane (Jenjira Pongpasa familiar face in the director’s filmography). During a picnic she relates to Toey a parable about a pair of farmers, who, upon instruction from a monk, pick rocks from a lake, which promptly turn to goldonly to desire more and more, and in doing so, end up being robbed and killed for their trouble. It’s a reworking of a moment in Tropical Malady, but there the story didn’t end fatally, the accrued riches simply transformed into toads. While Pa Jane speaks, the idyllic scene cuts to a darkened sky, the site of an eclipse out from which the sun is beginning to poke. This will find its corresponding image in a revelatory montage near the film’s conclusion. The outcome of Toey and Noom’s interest in each other is kept off-screen, but towards the end of the flashback it appeared as though a relationship was edging into view; the other romance, between Sakda and Ple, dovetails in precise arrangement with the end of Toey’s recollection, as one of Ple’s songs begins playing while the sun sets on her memory. Ple is performing for a town fair, which Sakda tries to attend. As the pair talk quietly after the concert, Ple is searching for the words to explain his interest in Sakda—what he comes up with is that Sakda reminds him of his dead brother, wondering if the monk is perhaps a reincarnation, and tries to gift him a toy belonging to said brother. Sakda refuses. Instead, Ple gives him his newest CD, which he offers, hilariously, with the following words of warning: “Normally I sing about teeth and gums…but this album is all love songs.” Brilliant. And not true! Even his love ballads, with their refrains of ‘smile, your smile makes me happy,’ and ‘please brighten me with your smile,’ reflect the particulars of his profession.

All of Apichatpong’s films contain a state of suspension, a feeling of being set adrift in sensuous terms from the rest of the film (not to mention the rest of the world), and no one image in Syndromes and a Century speaks to this more profoundly than that of Toey looking out of her office window. She moves to the window while the camera is on the other side of it, set off from her left, witnessing her at such an angle that the reflection of the field outside posts itself in a mirage across her face. For moment-to-moment pleasure, the shot rivals that of Min (Min Oo) in Blissfully Yours, walking through the forest in silence while bathing in the sunlight, or later, draping his body over the bank of a stream in St. Sebastian repose; or the sumptuously slow lap-dissolve in Cemetery of Splendour, juxtaposing the lights of a shopping mall to those of the machines assisting the soldiers’ sleep.

Then: a gleaming white hospital office in Bangkok; the same characters, in the same positions, but the scene plays with a different shot structure. Instead of one POV shot of Nohng answering Toey’s questions, followed by one Hou Hsiao-hsien-like distantly positioned long-take, Apichatpong opts for two POV shots, each differently framed. The shot of Nohng replicates itself from the Khon Kaen one, full head and shoulders squarely within the frame; the shot of Toey, from Nohng’s POV, is closer, her forehead leaning into the lens, and she’s inches off-centre. Nohng makes the same joke when he’s asked what ‘DDT’ stands for. The answer is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Nohng responds, cutely: “Destroy dirty things.”

The second half of the film, as mentioned, centres Dr. Nohng, his interactions with colleagues, a patient, and his seemingly soon-to-end relationship with Joy (Jarunee Saengtupthim). The scene in which Joy visits him on his break, and the two share a prolonged kiss, is indicative of the playful and affectionate (and explicit) eroticism that is a consistent trait of Apichatpong’s films. Joy disengages from Nohng’s lips after a few seconds, looks down, and smiles: Nohng has become tumescent, his erection bulging up against his zip. He rearranges himself and smiles back. In Blissfully Yours, Min and Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) laze the afternoon away sleeping next to a stream: half-awake, she takes his penis in hand and begins to coax it to erection, the camera fixed on it in real time. In these two examples, Apichatpong’s interest is in sexual pleasure, but he’s not above making jokes involving phalluses. In Cemetery of Splendour, three characters sit next to the bed of a soldier afflicted by sleeping sickness, as they talk his erection slowly tents up in his bed covers, and the trio have a good laugh at his expense.

The military is a constant presence in the film, because Nohng is army staff himself, and one of his duties in the Bangkok hospital’s basement is to look after the military-related patients: active duty soldiers, veterans, their relatives. The clinical cleanliness of the basement is made all the stranger by its first appearance: traversing its floor is a triple amputee, who regards Nohng and a colleague as they pass. That’s another constant in Apichatpong’s cinema: characters with ailments and illnesses and disabilities. (Tropical Malady is, in terms of features, the only exception to this.) In Mysterious Object at Noon, the first story revolves around a young boy in a wheelchair; in Blissfully Yours, Min suffers from a skin ailment, which makes him shed; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is essentially a palliative care film, its protagonist in his final days of a kidney illness; and Cemetery of Splendour applies doubly in this check, for both its phalanx of sleep-induced soldiers and its main character, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas again), suffering a disfigurement of the leg. Apichatpong provides these characters, representative of a group ill-served in and by the cinema, deprived of even rudimentary dignity or agency, lives of untold imaginative and emotional richness; and he also attends to the special intimacy that medical care can engender, best shown, in Cemetery of Splendour, by the way a character rubs Jen’s smarting leg with herbal cream before kissing it—the generosity of the act makes her weep. And Syndromes and a Century, with its hospital setting, is no different, with Pa Jane performing a fulsome role.

In the basement, Nohng meets at a bench with a pair of doctors, one of whom, Dr. Nant (Manasanant Porndispong), was shown teaching patients how to use their prosthetic limbs. The three gather together with a bottle of whisky hidden in one of the unused prosthetics, and while the glasses are filled, the camera moves towards the bench, framing only Nohng and the other doctor. Another colleague enters with a patient. Before long, the camera pans to the left and retreats when its picks up that Dr. Nant is looking right into the lens, as if to reproach the camera for excluding her from the shot. (This isn’t the first moment of self-reflexivity in the film: in the opening, in Khon Kaen, Toey leaves her office with her colleagues, only for the camera to dolly away from the characters and to a vantage of a green field, over which the title credits play. The characters can still be heard, in what Jonathan Rosenbaum calls ‘close-up sound,’ and they remain in character until one mentions having forgotten to unclip the microphone from his trousers, and Toey claims that they’ve played the scene over and over again.)

In the Bangkok setting, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography moves more frequently, employing fewer static long-takes than the film’s first half. A scheme of reverse-angle dolly shots gives the section a gliding style, and I have a greater sense of the camera’s ability to probe into the spaces of the hospital. Apichatpong’s training as an architect seems appropriate here, and plays into his ideas of story construction. The director opens up the space; and the viewer roams. This mirrors the way Abbas Kiarostami constructs his films (confirmed visually by the POV shots in the car with Toey and Noom, a camera set-up in a number of the Iranian director’s films), pressing on the viewer to establish and maintain an appreciation for the stories happening away from the camera. This is what came to mind when I read Genevieve Yue’s statement that Apichatpong’s ‘films breathe.’ (This and a reminder of the sequence of Keng in Tropical Malady breathing in unison with a felled cow.)

I like being mystified. It’s exciting. And it’s exactly how I was following the superlative wordless montage of seven shots towards the film’s end. Description and analysis can’t adequately evoke the sense of the sequence, but here’s something at least. Shot (1)—a hauntological drone for a score is being drowned out by the sound of saws and drills, as the camera initiates snaking through a moss-coloured corridor in the hospital, entering the doorway of a room being refurbished. Shot (2)—a static long-take of one of the doctors from earlier, the one who furnished the bottle from the prosthetic leg, waking from a nap taken at the bench she was last seen next to: it’s another reminder of the stories not being told. Shot (3)—distant camera set-up framing a corridor; after a few seconds, Joy sheepishly opens a door and heads for the exit; after her, Nohng does the same: I hope the rest is clear. Shot (4)—Pa Jane! She’s in the basement, walking stick in hand; it’s the first time she’s appeared in the second half. Shot (5)—the most moving single shot in the film: Toey, unseen for a while, sits at her desk, the camera framing her from her right this time (she’s looking off to her left); as the camera backs away, leaving her to solitude, the score swells.

Then, two masterpieces. Shot (6)—in the basement, the same room Dr. Nant was treating patients in, the camera is tilted up at the ceiling, looking at the lights illuminate the white smoke/fumes/steam/dust (?) swirling around the room, all the while arcing to the right in a tracking shot. Shot (7)—amazing: same room, cuts to the workbench in which the prosthetic limbs are modified, the camera performing the threefold operation of tracking to the right, panning to the left, and tilting towards the tube of an air extractor, the black opening of which the camera gradually draws near to; once it begins to look like the eclipse from Pa Jane’s parable, it starts vacuuming the offending air out of the room; the camera stays still while it does so. Jeff Reichert, in a bit of a reach, thinks this image references Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It made me recall the opening and closing of Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, but this sort of search for an antecedent isn’t worth embarking upon. Let the mystery in.

Which is to say this film, and Apichatpong’s cinema, rewires something in my film-watching brain. Syndromes and a Century closes with a series of pillow shots, each containing an isolated moment within a park near the hospital. A couple sits on a bench. Folk are lounging, reading next to a pond. Some are riding bicycles. A group of monks—and this shot is reportedly one of the reasons for the film being banned in Thailand, unbelievably—play with a remote-controlled flying saucer. In the very last shots, a group are gathered for an aerobic dance, led by an energetic instructor, backed by a cheery Japanese pop song. (“Fez” by Neil & Iraiza, if you want to know: it’s wonderful.) Any literary training forces a viewer into patterns of recognition, a symbol here, a compact ‘reading’ of a passage there. Syndromes and a Century works against my habits of meaning-making. This film slows me down—Apichatpong is sometimes linked to “slow cinema,” but that’s not an agreeable designation, because it supposes a natural or regular speed for cinema, and maybe it’s not that the films are slow but that viewers are too fast—which in itself is a tremendous pleasure. Apichatpong’s is a cinema that precludes immediate, easily-obtained answers, which is displeased by experience simplified or diluted or over-explained. It’s a cinema of prodigious spaces, great tactility and intimacy, and many more stories than can be accounted for. In Mysterious Object at Noon, one young participant begins adding to the story, but falters. Another child asks him, and it’s a question of endless encouragement, and one central to the director’s films, the stories contained and suggested within them: “Why not continue?” What’s more beautiful than that?

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