By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/23/22 – Thursday, April 21, at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles, the American Cinematheque screened Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and A Century (Thailand, 2006), his loosely-based autobiographical look at his own mother and father, who were both physicians working in a hospital in Khon Kaen, Thailand, where he grew up. The director revised that concept when he cast the actors and began filming. The story still focuses on a male and female doctor, and is dedicated to the director’s parents, but is set in two hospitals 40 years apart and explores both the memories and current lives of the protagonists. “I began with my parents’ story, but it has sprung to other things,” Weerasethakul said in an interview. “When I met the actors, when I found the location, there were other stories combined and added in. I try not to limit it. I allow it to flow whichever way it goes. It is very exciting.”
Syndromes and A Century paints an impressionistic portrait of two hospitals and a sprinkling of the characters that work and reside within. In a certain way, it is really one hospital, with essentially the same establishment shown almost in two alternate realities and possibly even time periods, both containing the same medical practitioners, patients and encounters. The difference is one of location – in the film’s first half the hospital is located in a rural setting, in the second in the heart of a bustling city. Like David Lynch (but without the scarily schizoid tendencies, the films of Weerasethakul are drawn to narratives of magical transformation, in which characters suddenly become other people, or their environment abruptly shifts and their personalities and memories adjust to suit it.
Some viewers have seen this as a kind of Buddhist aesthetic, but Weerasethakul knows that his films do not follow the Western psychoanalytic/surrealist traditions. Weerasethakul’s characters seem comfortable with the idea of multiplicity. There is no anxiety about the splitting of the ego. Life is transformation. Some days, you just wake up and you’re somebody else. The idea that we take the form of some sort of persistent self is an unnecessary myth. This sense of transformation comes through most obviously in Syndromes and a Century during the mid-film schism, when all of its characters suddenly relive the past few days of their life in a new location, losing old connections and forging new ones. Even the transition to this new life—with one character disappearing offscreen, and another character failing to follow them into whatever new space is part of this kind of story-telling.
Several characters appear in both stories but with varying degrees of prominence. First shown being interviewed to camera for his post in the opening scenes of both stories, hesitant new arrival Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) drops quickly into the background in the first half but is effectively the central character in the second, where a more confident figure emerges whose future plans are being mapped out for him by his more business-minded girlfriend. Young female doctor Toey (played by Natarat Sawaddikul), on the other hand, a key figure in the rural hospital story, all but disappears in part 2, where a scene from the first half in which she diagnoses an old monk (Sin Kaewpakpiin) who’s plagued by dreams of vengeful chickens is replayed in the second with an older male doctor. The monk gives each of the doctors plant roots that he assures them will treat a number of ailments and “reduce inconsequential thoughts,” an offering that only Toey is shown to make use of. The monk’s younger companion is quick to correct his elder regarding his mother’s asthma in Dr. Toey’s company, but on the rerun appears too shy to speak. This is a repetition with a difference and adds to the way of seeing our lives and life events as constant reruns of similar experiences.
Elsewhere the film is more direct about how location and surroundings can affect attitudes to life and others. In the rural hospital, a bond develops between dentist Dr. Ple (Arkanae Cherkam) and young monk Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee), who is undergoing his first ever dental examination. During the course of their unhurried encounter the two discover a shared interest in music – Sakda once harbored ambitions to be a DJ and Ple part-times as a singer. In one of the film’s quietly humorous and seemingly improvised moments, Ple all but halts his dental work to croon to his amused patient, who asks of his doctor “Is this a check-up or a concert?”
Both the dentist and the monk have alternate professional callings. At multiple times in the film, characters matter-of-factly discuss past and future spiritual incarnations of themselves. It seems readily accepted by most people onscreen that identity is fluid, and that this is not a bad thing. But no matter how fragmented we may be spiritually, how open to continuing re-interpretation and rebirth, there are still those parts of us that persist, resist change, and impose a sense of unified consistency over the continuum that we are. One of these is our body, that lump of flesh that itself transforms during our lifetimes, but that nevertheless marks us as singular, autonomous, intact. The other is the stories we tell about ourselves.
A young man, in an army uniform is present at Dr. Nohng’s interview with the female Dr. Toey and seen stalking and artfully avoiding Dr. Toey around the hospital in interstitial scenes. He finally confronts Dr. Toey and unexpectedly confesses his love for her. She takes him to a secluded area in a park near a Buddha statue to listen to his story and she recounts some recent events in her own life in an attempt to console him in his obviously unrequited love.
In Dr. Toey’s story, she meets an orchid dealer, Noom (Sophon Pukanok), who first tries to sell her an expensive orchid at an open-air market, and then later shows interest in obtaining a wild orchid growing on the hospital grounds. As they build a flirtatious friendship, she visits him at his farm. While there, she strikes up a conversation with another woman, Pa Jane (Jenjira Pongpas), examining her wounded leg. Later, while enjoying a picnic together, Pa Jane tells Dr. Toey a story of her own – a parable of greed starring monks and farmers. Pa Jane encourages Toey to tell Noom about her feelings for him, but Toey insists that she doesn’t want to pursue a relationship. Noom hangs the orchid Toey procured from the hospital grounds, and the two have a giggly conversation about a shared inability to express love.
Dr. Toey’s story ends, and in the next scene we witness a fair celebration, held at the hospital. Ple the dentist croons a love song that is appropriately about a beautiful smile. Afterwards, he meets with the monk whose teeth he cleaned earlier. He muses that the monk may be the reincarnation of his dead younger brother. The monk wanders away, telling Ple to follow him, but Ple loses him in the dark, and ends up sitting in his dentist’s office, alone.
The rural setting of the first half has an undeniably idyllic quality, a place where nature benignly dominates and the pace of life is attractively unhurried. Yet there is never the sense that this hospital is technologically lagging behind its big city cousin, rather that a balance has been struck here between nature and technology, the traditional and the modern, something that survives in the city only in the designated green spaces of parks and grounds. It’s just one of many themes touched on in the course of the two stories, with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation figuring prominently, both as the subject of conversation and as one possible reading of the film’s structure.
In the second half of the film, we are in the impersonal expanse of the city teaching hospital. There the friendship between the dentists and the Buddhist monk is never on the cards – Ple is absorbed by the mechanics of the job and the monk Saka is irritated by the entire procedure, repeatedly removing the cloth placed over his eyes to shield them from the examination light. The dentist’s office is a much more sterile environment this time around (both figuratively, and I am sure literally), which dampens their conversation. Unlike before, they reveal nothing about their lives and callings to one another.
After a series of semicircular tracking shots of statues on the hospital grounds, this new, Bangkok-based story decisively breaks from what came before. Unlike in the rural hospital, where he was immediately assigned to the emergency ward, the Bangkok version of Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) is a hematologist, who spends his breaks reminiscing with an amputee physical therapist who used to be his childhood neighbor. (She rather devilishly hides a bottle of booze in an artificial leg in the break room.) Afterwards, Dr. Nohng chats with a carbon monoxide poisoned patient playing tennis in the corridor.
Rather than hear a story about the love life of Dr. Toey, in this half of the story we see Dr. Nohng and his girlfriend having a short illicit make-out session in the hospital. The two of them discuss moving to a new city to follow the woman’s job. In place of the fair that ended the film’s rural half, the Bangkok ends with a montage of characters at the end of their day, an amputee walking through the hospital, a strange pipe sucking up smoke in a machining room, and people exercising in a public park.
Weerasethakul’s shooting and editing style mirrors the calm of his characters and storytelling. Observationally static for the most part, every now and then the camera goes on the move, unexpectedly following Nohng and his colleague’s walk to the basement military wing in a long, unbroken hand-held shot (the complete opposite of its first story equivalent, where the doctors complete a similar journey in audio only, while the camera glides to a balcony to gaze at the fields beyond) or circling statues and prowling through the expansion work being carried out in the city hospital basement. There’s a hypnotically surrealist air to these slow cinematic drifts, enhanced by the electronic drones of Kantee Anantagant’s minimalist score. In the climactic sequence it takes on an almost sinister feel, with visions of lone figures in otherwise empty corridors, a doctor waking disoriented from a drink-induced doze, and an extraordinary shot in which dust and smoke from the basement construction work is sucked into an extractor pipe that we ourselves seem in danger of being pulled though as well.
This is not a film you could really see being labelled as controversial. Unfortunately, that’s not a view shared by the authorities in Thailand, where it was made. Government authorities objected to four scenes in particular: One in which Nohng spends a while kissing his girlfriend (which leads to an erection in his trousers); another in which a group of doctors share a bottle of whisky in a hospital basement room; a short sequence showing two monks playing with a remote-controlled flying saucer in a park; and another – dangerous stuff, this – in which a monk is shown strumming a guitar. All of these sequences (plus another two added later) – totaling fifteen minutes of screen time – were deemed to show Thai society in a bad light and director Weerasethakul was asked to cut them from the film.
The films of Weerasethakul display a fondness for symmetry. However, the second half of Syndromes isn’t a mirror image of the first half: the scenes that we see play over are left in their original order, rather than being reversed. But, as if to make up for his lack of strict chronological reversal, Weerasethakul goes all-in with literal mirroring, staging each scene in the second half with reverse blocking from its counterpart in the first half. These characters have gone “through the looking glass,” so to speak. In place of surrealist “exquisite corpse” storytelling, Syndromes has its shaggy-dog nested stories.
A significant chunk of the “rural” half of the film is Dr. Toey recounting some recent experiences to her unwanted suitor. And then, within that recounting, a second tale is told, by her friend Pa Jane. This nested story ends up being more coherent than its frame-story: Pa Jane’s fable concludes with a definite ending, one that imparts a clear moral. The story that Toey tells, meanwhile, is shaggy and shapeless. Assumedly, Toey is telling it to express to her stalker that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship, comforting him by letting him know that he’s not the first man to be rejected by her. But her story is a strangely long-winded way of expressing this, filled with errant details, and not even reaching a satisfying conclusion. Rather than end with a moral, it kind of peters out, as the film itself seems to lose interest in it, and moves on to the evening of the fair. Which is, of course, the film’s carnivalesque centerpiece, the eruption of play that begins the process of destabilizing its characters, shaking them loose from this environment so that they can be later dropped into another one.
If history is the cementing of time into an agreed-upon narrative, play is the imagining of alternate possibilities, the re-configuration of reality (including its past and future) into new constellations. And these sorts of moments nearly always disrupt efforts at narrative in Weerasethakul’s films. Storytelling and narrativization are the means by which the coherence of self is asserted in the face of temporal impermanence. Stories are how we put together the puzzles of the events of our lives. Play is when we shake up the puzzle box.