This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
Syndromes and a Century (2006)
Written & Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
I’m still not sure how I feel about the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This is the second of his films I’ve ever watched, the previous being Memoria. I don’t dislike his movies; it’s more a matter of adjusting expectations of pace & tone. Weerasethakul’s work is so calm and slow-burning that it can often feel like nothing is happening. However, what he’s doing is using that stillness to communicate ideas about how we live our lives. Weerasethakul wants his audience to become more contemplative, to absorb the details we often gloss over as we rush through life. That’s made very apparent in this picture’s tone and mirrored structure.
Syndromes and a Century came out of Weerasethakul’s thoughts about how his parents met in the 1970s. The film begins in that decade, focused on Dr. Toey, a female doctor working in a rural Thai hospital. In the opening scene, she is interviewing Dr. Nohng, the man who will eventually become her husband. However, Weerasethakul has stated that there is more than that, and this relationship was the seed from which the slice of life nature of the picture emerged. We move through the hospital, stepping into small stories between a dentist and his monk patient or just non-narrative pieces like an exercise class for elderly patients and an elder monk trying to get prescriptions out of a wary doctor.
What makes Syndromes an even more remarkable film is that we jump ahead in time at the halfway point and switch from focusing mainly on Toey to Nohng. The dialogue is also mirrored and repeated in many places, but the second time around has a new context based on how time has changed things. So much of the film is about memory and dreams. The dentist shares his dream of becoming a famous pop star, something he pursues on the side. His monk patient laments giving up on his youthful aspirations to be a DJ or run a comic book store. These moments are presented with an extremely dry sense of humor, you are meant to laugh at them, but unlike American fare, they aren’t over the top cued laughs.
Fluidity defines the pictures, the camera floating from room to room or spending a minute observing a statue outside the hospital. Some might call this self-indulgent, but I see it as visual exploration in the same way David Lynch feels subconscious urges to compose specific images and let them be. The result in Syndromes is a study of liminal spaces and the dreamlike nature of memory. People don’t communicate with each other in clear, structured narratives, so conversations are interrupted by other people, or one person talking goes off on a tangent recounting a person they met at a flea market. Yet, the warmth of human connection bubbles up to the surface out of this seeming nonsense. Characters are creating relationships, and even they aren’t sure what connection this will be. For some, it is romantic; for some, it is failed romance; for others, friendship and, for the most part, the relationship between doctor & patient.
There’s an image near the end of the film that seems to sum up Weerasethakul’s thoughts on the nature of memory. We see a tube with a funnel somewhere in the basement of the modern Bangkok hospital. A swirl of smoke that fills the room is methodically sucked up by the tube. The camera pushes towards the void-like mouth of the funnel and eventually becomes fixed dead center. The smoke takes on a spiral shape as it is sucked up and disappears. This whole image sums up what memory feels like. Experiences are challenging to hold onto, and we try to pull them in, desperate not to forget every sensation we felt in those important moments. Much of the tangible experience is lost; we’re left with memory, a distorted facsimile of what happened, warped and mixed with all the other memories that fill our skulls.
This is why even the most central characters in the film are painted in such broad & ambiguous strokes. When you begin to add in distractions and side stories, you feel the blur of time. The mirrored structure also points to the repetitiveness of people; whether it be the actions needed to do work or the habits we find ourselves stuck in, we live in cycles with slight variations. Syndromes and a Century is a film to be experienced for the audience to release their expectations of form and simply move with the rhythm established by Weerasethakul.