PRINT April 2007


Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What’s given bears fruit as pleasure.
—From the Aditta Sutta

THERE IS NO MORE generous vision in contemporary cinema than that of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. So rapturous is his desire to share everyday delight in sun streaming through wind-whipped trees, a mass aerobics dance in a Bangkok park, a dentist in a glittery green jacket crooning a Thai country tune, a wild orchid riding in the backseat of a car like a petulant child, that even the cynical critic resistant to bliss finds himself yielding to nothing less than sheer, unaccountable joy. The precredit sequence of Apichatpong’s latest serene enigma, Syndromes and a Century, alone offers more beauty, gentle wit, and invention than most directors can muster in an entire film. After suspending time with a long, locked shot of those gusted trees, Apitchatpong tenders two abrupt close-ups introducing the major male characters in the film. The first is Toa (Nu Nimsomboon), arrived in a rural hospital to court a young woman physician, Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul). The latter remains offscreen as she interviews the second man, Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), for a hospital position, discovering that the army-trained surgeon can’t stand the sight of blood and (like Apichatpong) wants a job in which he can see “faces come and go.” When asked what DDT stands for, the prospect hesitantly offers “Destroy Dirty Things,” and then, reading Dr. Toey’s stunned disbelief at that response, “Deep Down To You.” (The joke, which gets repeated in the film’s second half, derives from a memory of Apichatpong’s father, a doctor who met the director’s mother, also an MD, at just such a hospital.) Even when the camera finally resorts to a two-shot and reveals the interviewer and her retro office, it hangs back with a detached attention to setting and architecture, as it will throughout Syndromes, before embarking on one of the film’s most glorious formal ploys. As Dr. Toey departs the hospital, she exits the frame, and the camera surprises us by not following her but instead dollying forward, in a manner that inadvertently invokes the famous last shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger, toward lush countryside framed by a balcony, finally halting to contemplate in long take this sun-swept vista as the credits begin to appear. The sound track meanwhile remains with the doctor and her male companion as they decamp, chatting about two cute construction workers, some Star Wars glasses being given away by the hospital, a Buddhist temple, until he suddenly complains about the thing clipped to his pants (one assumes a mic), and she laughingly refers to playing the same scene over (“It’s only been five takes”).What would seem a neo-Brechtian rupture in any other film here appears, given Apichatpong’s unstinting aesthetic, an accident left in merely to mystify and amuse.

Like Apichatpong’s previous film, Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century is bifurcated—it, too, “starts over” halfway through, but to less baffling effect, perhaps because we are now accustomed to the gambit. Syndromes’ caesura occurs exactly midway through the film, at the fifty-three-minute mark, a precision somewhat surprising for an artist as intuitive as Apichatpong. As if placing a reverse field shot almost an hour after its counterpart, the director collapses time by introducing the film’s second half with a repeat of the opening interview, only now it is Dr. Toey’s face we see and Dr. Nohng’s voice we hear offscreen as he submits to her quiz. (The ever-ardent Toa remains in the wings, waiting to court Dr. Toey, though this time it is Dr. Nohng’s love story that will predominate.) The interview’s questions and answers differ somewhat from the first—many of the repetitions in the film’s second half are varied or slyly transformed, as is Apichatpong’s wont—and the hospital is now urban and contemporary.

Because the symmetries of theme, setting, and character between Syndromes’ two halves are more pronounced than in the bewildering Tropical Malady, it’s tempting to assign them dichotomous values—rural/urban, female/male, past/present, memory/fantasy—and to contrast respective camera styles, more fixed and intimate in the first, more mobile and aloof in the second. But Apichatpong’s mysterious modus seems averse to strict dualities. He loves to toy with the diegetic or nondiegetic status of music, allowing it to slip from seen to unsourced accompaniment and back again. He blithely conflates faith and science, both in the love story between a monk and a dentist, and in a series of cryptic lateral tracks that rhymes shots of a white Buddhist statue with those of black granite monuments to important figures in the history of Thai medicine. Certain images seem like echoes across the divide: The black disk of an eclipse with a pink nimbus in the first half appears to prefigure the black aperture of a pipe into which we watch (for more than seventy seconds) mist, like memory, being sucked—one of the stranger moments in the second half. But the story of Noom (Sophon Pukanok), an orchid expert, is confined entirely to the first half, interpolated Resnais-style into that of the courtship of Toa and Dr. Toey, and has no counterpart in the second half. And, as Apichatpong has pointed out, “the Thai title [of Syndromes] means ‘Light of the Century.’ The first half of the film is a kind of portrait of the sun, or an account of the way we depend on the sun for our survival. The second half . . . is dominated by artificial light. But the chakra healing in the second half is also all about the sun: It’s a way of channeling the sun’s power into the body.” Similarly, the film’s English title combines two of Apichatpong’s abiding concerns—the temporal and the somatic—but in an allusive rather than exigent way. The director, who says that recurrence in his work reflects his Buddhist belief in reincarnation, seems immune to the systematic.

In its structure and in certain details—the clinical setting and country landscapes, a woman by the riverside spreading mud on her injured leg, a doctor pressured to give medicine without a prescription, a close-up of an erection, two wise old women dispensing wisdom, several traveling shots—Syndromes recalls Apichatpong’s earlier films, like Blissfully Yours (2002) and Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). But the film also extends his visual register, particularly in the second half, where it descends, by way of a protracted handheld follow shot, from the solar to the subterranean: the basement of a modern hospital. In this strangely Kubrickian locale, with its harshly lit hallways, pristine white walls, and surreal heaps of prosthetics (found objects that recall the mannequins in Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss), Apichatpong’s camera glides and dollies with cool precision, accompanied by an ominous sound track of low drone, hammering, welding, and the whine of a lathe. Again, the director reserves this baleful space not to contrast its cold impersonality with the sunlit jungle hospital of the first half (an arena of nostalgia because it was where his parents met and he grew up), but instead peoples its fluorescent underground with a host of kindly doctors, including a dipso who hides her bottle in a prosthetic leg, and a handsome boy called Off, whose brain has been damaged by carbon monoxide poisoning but who is determined to get his life back on track.

Just as the concept of hüzün, the Istanbul melancholy described by novelist Orhan Pamuk, can perhaps account for the aura of inertia and emotional gloaming in the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Buddhist idea of dana (the treasure of generosity) might explain the euphoric sense of Apichatpong’s cinema as an act of giving. Not only do his films bestow more than most, they also extend sympathy to every character. If there is a more tender moment in current cinema than the one in which Dr. Nohng examines the tattoo (PANDORA) on Off’s neck and then gently questions him about his malady, it is that between Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee), monk and DJ-manqué, and his would-be lover, the dentist Ple (Arkanae Cherkam), as they discuss death and reincarnation. Throughout the film, Apichatpong accords characters moments of repose, their faces registering a fleeting surcease of the world. In one of those images whose unreasonable loveliness trumps all analysis, the camera settles on Dr. Toey’s face as she gazes out a window, its double reflections confounding our sense of space, fusing landscape and interior, inside and out, scenery and visage. One is reminded that Apichatpong once praised American experimental filmmaker Bruce Baillie, a formative influence, for the way he “records pleasure, and the sun.” The modesty of that observation, its emphasis on simple happiness, slowly effloresces into manifold mystery. Uncontrived, intuitive mystery, a rare commodity in any art, abounds in Apichatpong’s films. He can’t seem to cast his eye on any object without making it strange, not so much defamiliarized as ineffable. One surrenders, blissfully, to that strangeness.

Syndromes and a Century opens on April 18 in New York City.

James Quandt is a senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.