Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Reincarnation, the rise of industrialization and parallel universes weave in and out of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s (or Joe, for short) Syndromes and a Century. While this might sound like heavy material, the film is playful and lighthearted, balancing the ominous social and spiritual ideas with a dry sense of humor and a lush array of visuals.

The film is a contrast of two different worlds with the same people. Both take place in the same hospital, but in one it’s a warm and simple place. In the other, the hospital is sleekly modern, boasting a larger staff, but it lacks the personal touches of the other hospital and it’s also a world out of touch with its roots, isolating themselves from the more humble and down to earth settings of the original.

Here, the workplace relationship is almost strictly professional. Whereas before people met and became friends, they now simply focus on their work. There’s something disheartening about seeing two people who became swift friends hardly exchange a word in this alternate universe. But it is not a world completely devoid of meaningful human relationship.

It’s here that the film’s most intimate relationship happens. And yet, the relationship is underpinned with a strong yearning. The two lovers meet in a small washroom that is stuffing them, much like the modern word is suffocating them and the two long to run away from the country. But even more than that, there’s this idea that even the modern world can’t hide the mysterious rhythm of the universe, some mystical force that somehow governs the movements of all humanity.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom adopts to film most of Syndromes and a Century with a still camera. While this might sound restricting, this gives the film an odd sense of irony. While the film is about the flux of the universe, and the change between two universes, the constant perspective if fixed, stilted and still.

But this still position allows for a clear contrast in the two sections of the film. The first often sets the characters in warm, inviting locations where they are often aware of their environment. In the second half, the film finds ways to blend the characters into the visuals, so that they almost seem like they’re part of the furnishings. And most of the observers are unaware of their environment…save for a small few.

As naval gazing and self-important as that may sound, Syndromes and a Century is a hilarious film. The interview that opens the film has some of the silliest questions asked in all earnestness, and the answers are particularly obtuse and amusing. And later when a monk explains his ailment to a doctor, he goes on about the chickens that haunt his dreams. In the modern rendition of the scene, the doctor can’t help but laugh at the man’s odd nightmare.

There’s also something funny about the characters in this film. One character is a dentist who is also trying to make it as a Thai country singer and he begins to perform for one of his patients. This patient is a monk who wants to be a DJ. The two form a sweet, but humorous relationship bound by their love of music. The funny part is that neither of them like the same kind of music.

And speaking of music, there’s a fantastic musical bridge that transitions the film from one world to another and it’s one of those rare moments of pure movie magic. It’s hard to explain in words, but the way the filmmakers use the play of images and the song together creates a profound audio/visual reverberation as worlds collide for just the briefest of moments.

It’s that moment, and a few more, that suggest Syndromes and a Century is digging at something deeper. There’s some great mystery of the soul, something we seek in nature, in art, in religion and in our connections with other people. That we’re all part of the same syndrome, we’re lovesick for something we can’t put into words. Time moves on. Perhaps we finally see it, for just a moment, or maybe it passes us by, a fleeting glimpse of what might have been.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing