Nantarat Sawaddikul in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century
If the 2007 L.A. Film Festival was porn, then for me Syndromes and a Century from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul was the money shot. This is why I bought tickets for a bunch of movies I’d never heard of before. This is why I drove back and forth from the Valley to Westwood every night for a week. This is why I sat through an hour and fifty minutes of some old Spanish guy, wandering through the wilderness in a shabby suit of armor on a tired looking horse, shouting into the wind in Catalanian. Hell, this is why I started writing this blog. Syndromes and a Century is a motivating reminder of why I love movies and it couldn’t have come along at a better time.
It turns out, coming up with something interesting and fresh to say about movies every day or two is harder than I thought it would be. I’ve only been at it for a couple of months, but already I’ve found myself getting bogged down. Recently, after seeing a batch of movies that left me feeling sort of indifferent, neither loving nor hating them, I was having a hard time even writing a simple movie review. It would have been easy to lose sight of why I was doing a blog in the first place, but with Syndromes and a Century, everything came back into focus. For me, it’s all about the excitement of discovering interesting new movies and sharing the experience with others in the hope that someone somewhere will be inspired to try something new.
You can probably tell I’m beating around the bush a little here. The fact is, I’m not quite sure how to talk about the movie. I loved it yet I’m not sure I can tell you why. I’m not even sure I can tell you what it was all about. Doesn’t that just make you want to click right over to Netflix and drop it in your queue? No? Yeah, I didn’t think so (for the record, they have it listed but with an unknown release date). The thing is, sometimes I have a hard time putting my finger on what a film is all about or why it moves me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been trying to translate my feelings about movies into words for other people to read for very long, but I also think some movies work on another, less intellectual level. They can’t be easily categorized or quantified. Sometimes they’re like great poetry, the things that make them great also make them hard to describe. Syndromes and a Century is that kind of movie. It’s more of a work of art to be contemplated than an entertainment to be consumed.
Part of the same New Crowned Hope series as I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (reviewed in LAFF Part 3), Syndromes and a Century purports to tell the story of the director’s parents, but this is not a traditional biography. It’s more of a series of impressions and fragments and like the other film, it is very light on plot. The first half of the film begins in a rural hospital where pretty, young Dr. Toey is interviewing a potential candidate for a position at the hospital by asking him strange questions. Do you like to draw or paint? (Yes I do). What is your favorite color? (clear, like glass). Do you have any pets? (I used to have a cat). Do you know what DDT is? (Do you have to know that here?). The interviewee, Dr. Nohng turns out to be afraid of blood, but he gets the job anyway.
The story then mainly follows Dr. Toey through a series of incidents as a young man pursues her, offering her gifts and professing his love for her while she seems more interested in an orchid grower. A lot of time is also spent with a singing dentist and one of his patients, a Buddhist monk who dreams of being a DJ.
It’s all a little strange and confusing, but I start getting used to the narrative ebb and flow. For a while, the story flirts with coming together and making sense. Then half way in, just when I think I might be able to grasp where the director is taking me, the film reboots and I’m back to where I started. Literally. This time the setting moves to a different hospital in a more sterile, urban setting. Once again Dr. Nohng answers the same strange questions, but this time they’re asked by a different person. Then the story continues from there, striking out in a different direction, this time following Dr. Nohng. There are parallels and shared visual references with the first half of the film and the dentist and Buddhist monk turn up as well.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. came to mind right around the time the movie rebooted. Perhaps it was the sense that this story was a shifting, mutable thing that shared a strange dream logic with a lot of Lynch’s work. It was like the memory of a story that had been told many times and changed a little each time depending on the telling and the teller. It even flirted with an unsettling, unexplainable, Lynchian creepiness from time to time though it never plunged completely into that territory. Strangely, I also thought of Terrence Malick, another filmmaker whose narratives can be lyrical and ambiguous. If you can imagine a whimsical, Thai Terrence Malick with a dash of David Lynch, you’re on your way to having a sense of what this movie was like. I think I will have to see it several more times to really feel like I’ve put all the pieces together however. For now I’m guessing that Dr. Toey is the director’s mother and Dr. Nohng is his father, but there is never a scene where the two come together romantically and I can’t say for sure.
If you don’t like movies that lack a strong, well-defined narrative, then Syndromes and a Century will probably bore you. It asks that you let go; that you trust the filmmaker to take you where he will. It asks that you try not to explain it, but to simply experience it; that you let it move you and make you feel. If you can do those things, you might find that your patience is rewarded by this warm, amused, slightly dreamy film that defies easy explanation. If your experience is like mine, Syndromes and a Century will transport you for a couple of hours and you’ll return, refreshed, invigorated and dying to share this fascinating movie with someone else.