Syndromes and a Century [2006] – A Playful, Enigmatic and Transcendental Cinematic Gem

                                             Cinema has the powerful ability to orchestrate worldly or temporal experiences, subsequently allowing us to make sense of our own past experiences (also experience something we had never any knowledge about). Cinema can fulfill our yearning for spiritual knowledge (like meditation) in this modernized world. It can serve as a bridge between a simple individual and wide spectrum of society, imparting the transcendent view about the world we live in. But, not all the film-makers have spiritual concern for their viewers, while weaving images. Film-makers like Bergman, Antonoini, Terrence Malick and Tarkovsky treated film-making as an astounding experiment in memory. The memories interwoven in those masters’ frames aren’t like rushing through photo albums; they gradually allow us to invest our mind and heart into moments and memories of the characters. All that we require to assimilate those masters’ works is an openness of heart and mind plus an attention to visuals that may bestow us the transcendent experience. Thailand's provocative film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one such spiritually concerned film-maker, whose works distinctively explores human memories and feelings.

                                          All of Weerasethakul’s movies are abstract pieces, constructed around a thin narrative structure that is virtually impossible to be confined within a synopsis. His 2006 “Syndromes and a Century” (aka ‘Sang Sattawat’) is said to be exploration of the directors’ childhood memories about his doctor parents. The ensuing tale is split into tow halves, set in two different hospital settings (village/city) with several key characters, sequences or even dialogues repeated in both halves. The first half revolves around young, country doctor Toey (mother figure) and her lovesick suitor Toa. In the second-half, the subject is Dr. Nohng (father), working in a more contemporary city hospital. Dr. Toey conducting a psychological profile of Dr.Nohng (from Army) serves as the bookend for both halves. While Nohng disappears in the background in first-half, it is Dr. Toey who disappears from narrative after the interview, in the second-half. In the rural setting, there’s also an interesting vignette involving a young dentist & part-time singer Dr. Ple and a young monk, who once harbored the desire to be a DJ. There’s a possibility of a friendship or brotherhood between those two, but when the same people meet in the same dental procedure in the second-half, nothing happens. In the vast, indifferent city hospital, Dr. Ple is fully absorbed by the mechanics of his work, while the young monk is irritated by the whole non-communicative procedure.

                                           The word ‘dreamlike logic’ has become cliched because those words are evoked whenever a narrative tries to be little less realistic. In “Syndromes and Century” those words resonate strongly, since the characters are identified from their fragmented memories and moods. Their stories or life events blend, blurs or linked together to tell something fascinating about the whole of human race. In the film, director Weerasethakul tries to explore our attitudes towards life and fellow human beings with regard to locations & atmosphere. In the first, he deals with a idyllic rural place, where Weerasethakul born and grew up in his formative years, whereas in the second part, the action takes place in a bustling, technologically trumping big city, where the director stays now. Nevertheless, this film isn’t blatantly devised as a city vs village debate. If you view the movie’s flow as a string of beautiful musical notes, then that gracefulness is maintained in both the settings. The breezy and subtly humorous exchange between the dentist and the monk that happened in the rural hospital gets lost by the constrained mental attitude in the big city. But, what we still see in the illuminated corridors of the modern hospital is all the same kind of humans with their own foibles and quirks.  A hospitalized youth to feign boredom plays tennis in the corridor; a prosthetic limb technician keeps a bottle hidden at the prosthetic leg to soothe herself before going to a television interview.

                                        Apichatpong Weerasethakul subtly denotes at the striking balance between the tradition and technology in the rural hospital. An old monk tells Dr. Toey about his ailments after eating poultry meat, and the nightmares he has, where vengeful chickens are on the prowl. As Toey calmly listens and replies with a cure, the old monk gives a plant root to the doctor, assuring that it will treat various ailments plus remove ‘bad inconsequential thoughts’. Later, we see young Toey using the root in her tea. The scene, shot in the most simplistic manner, effortlessly shows the blurred lines between healer and the healed. One has the solution for physical ailment, while the other for spiritual ailment. The same exchange happens in the city hospital, where Dr. Toey is replaced by an old man, who never seems to take the plant roots seriously (or seen using it). Elsewhere, the director makes us question the images seen or stories told on-screen.  A young hopelessly in love with Dr. Toey professes his love to her and the clueless doctor tells him a story about her encounter with a ‘wild orchard’ farmer. What’s the significance of that story and what does the 'solar eclipse' tale mean? I couldn’t figure out entirely, but there’s something fascinating or magnetic about those sequences that I didn’t much care about the exact meaning. 

                                          Buddhist spiritual ideas, mainly its idea of resurrection and Thai myths & folklore, play a vital role in shaping Weerasethakaul’s works. But, the elusive hints about the film-makers’ themes constantly widens and escapes as the movie progresses. There are lot of digressions (and all of those are beautiful) and one good way to see the movie is to simply lose ourselves in the images and organically allow the ideas to take hold. Nevertheless, the director isn’t trying hard to be deliberately wacky or cater only to his ‘cult’ viewers. In fact, “Syndromes and a Century” is a fine example of relaxed film-making, breaking through cinema’s normalities with a magical quality. The film’s atmosphere drenched in hypnotic surrealism seems to be the very definition of ‘prerogative of art’. Towards the end, the calm surrealism lends a sinister feeling, while the camera gradually cruises through the hospital’s basement and settles on a steam room extractor pipe, pulling off the dust and smoke. The Lynchian image of the pipe, whose aperture seems to resemble that of solar eclipse, earlier seen in one of the revelatory sequences. Are those smokes and dusts getting sucked in, is like our lives and memories, intertwining and eventually disappearing from existence? What does that genuinely distressing image mean? Again hard to pinpoint, but I was taken aback by the image’s diabolical beauty.

                                           Apichatpong Weerasethakaul does take cinema as a very serious art form, but that doesn’t mean his characters are all always enunciating somber reflections on life. There’s a playful and gentle touches in the film that gives a sense of euphoria in the end. Doctor Nohng, working in the city hospital, is visited by his girlfriend, an office woman very much interested in moving to her company’s newly built industrial complex. She shows Nohng the immense rows of construction towers and cranes in an attempt to persuade or arouse him to move to that place with her. It is hard to judge from Nohng’s expressions whether he intends to shift to the dispiriting industrial complex, but he does get immediately aroused when the girl passionately kisses him and emits a smile while controlling the erection. A kiss triggers a sense of happiness in the doctor, which the phallic towers failed to generate. May be, Weerasethakaul’s collective cinematic memory is all about exploring humans’ elation, experienced through seemingly insignificant gestures and things. And, it is true that all these words of mine could tell nothing at all. These are just mere words, remembering the refined memories attached to experiencing the film. But, to fully realize the power of the film, one has to simply ignore the inconsequential words and plunge into the distinct visuals.


                                           “Syndromes and a Century” (105 minutes) is a pure art-house film, leaving no room for mainstream sensibilities. Its director Weerasethakaul’s intoxicating, contemplative, astute images must be savored by all serious movie-lovers.

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