Sunday, April 22, 2007

New Film: Syndromes and a Century

The critical consensus surrounding Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is that the film is mystifying, if not entirely incomprehensible -- though still quite good, whatever that might mean. While I would have concurred with the above after its initial local screening last fall at the New York Film Festival, a second viewing at the IFC Film Center this past weekend, yielded a work of far greater lucidity (at least for this reviewer), while maintaining the same evasive allure.

Syndromes and a Century opens in a country hospital with a young soldier applying for a position with a pretty female doctor. Throughout most of her nonsensical questions -- as in if he prefers squares, circles or triangles... it's the second, and clear ones at that -- the camera remains fixed on the gentleman. This choice sets up part two (of a two part narrative) where the camera fixes on the young woman as she interviews a better-dressed male in an urban hospital . (For the record, Apichatpong has suggested that part one somehow commemorates his mother while part two, his father, both of whom were doctors.)

Similarly, Apichatpong's decision to utilize long, static takes similarly establishes the aesthetic that will prevail in the first part, even as it reflects the languid lifestyle that predominates in its country locations. In contrast, Apichatpong moves his camera more often in the second, urban section (though it is a slow, crepuscular panning that does not denote the quote-end quote frantic pace of city life). Likewise, these urban locales tend to be confined to an antiseptic, colorless hospital whose windows are almost always shut (and therefore, that emits few sounds from the outside world) whereas greens and the saffron of the monk's robes constitute the more colorful palette of the earlier section. Moreover, part one, again in comparison to the second half and the sounds of the humming fans that ventilate the building, is entirely composed of the ambient sounds of the countryside -- that is, of the birds singing, the insects humming, etc. -- which pass in through the open windows on the continual summer winds.

In this pristine back country, Apichatpong emphasizes the act of storytelling that has long been a hallmark of his directorial work -- with his "exquisite corpse" Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) remaining the most obvious instantiation of this interest. Here, we have one tale following another, procuring a narrative that largely proceeds according to a set of digressions that again seems to cohere with the rural pace of life. In one exceptionally revealing example, within a second story that ultimately leads nowhere in particular, an older woman weaves a tale of a solar eclipse that produces this image subsequently. Comparatively, part two, after a Buddhist monk discusses a dream in which he is terrorized by livestock (as he had in the first section, though again from a different camera angle) is exorcised of storytelling, as if it is not only the walden-like natural world that is lost in Apichatpong's urban present/future.

Of course, the second half also lacks the religious presence of the first part, save again for the repetition of the earlier scene. Here, there are Buddha statues to the active monks and their summer festival in part one, where we see a dentist singing songs about teeth. However, this latter detail, far from being an amusing aside, confers an element of the cultural specificity that is conveyed as the purview of the rural episode: Thailand as a land of smiles, which to my understanding has long been a tourist symbol for the nation. Importantly, this same dentist also operates on a monk in both parts, which construe the varying meaning of the two halves -- in the first, he tells the youngish monk about his musical career and inquires about whether he'll receive credit for his good deed (thus showing his respect for the faith) whereas the second iteration is purely silent; in the urban environment the personal is lost -- Apichatpong features statues of individuals to compliment those of the similarly absent Buddhist faith -- as are the emblems of Thai cultural specificity.

However, the urban segment is not purely negation -- though it is this -- but is further a disquieting portrait of an (ecologically perhaps) ruinous present replete with the amputees that populate the white-walled hospital. Moreover, the film's second part concludes with a slow camera movement across a section of micro-fibre tubing that sucks in the smoke which is mysteriously present in the windowless basement (where the ill do their exercises to the airy space where this same action is conducted in the first part).
At this moment, to be sure, Apichatpong's narrative coheres as a pretty clear comparison of the urban and rural, past and present. However, the director then moves outside of the sealed hospital to a set of grassy landscapes that combine the natural and the architectural in the film's short coda. In this regard, it seems as if Apichatpong might be suggesting a tentative solution, though the continued lack of cultural specificity, apart from the pop song-group dance number that closes the film, assures that the director remains ambivalent toward this conventional (new urbanist) proposal. In this way, Syndromes and a Century preserves a degree of ambiguity against which the film's comparative structure largely militates.

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