Syndromes and A Century

Reviewed by: Kong Rithdee
Cinema of Impermanence

“There are two trees. One represents my father’s story. The other represents my mother’s story. They grow together, and other stories grow out of them too.”

The enigma of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new movie is the enigma of memories. How they come flooding like happy sunlight on an afternoon by the pond, how they gradually slip out of grasp like when a solar eclipse casts an inevitable shadow on the earth. It’s the great enigma of how memories haunt, touch, tease, elate and pain us. How they illuminate life. How they darken life. How they imitate life then become life itself. How they orchestrate the ecosystem of the senses and the biological symmetry of the body, the metaphysics of the soul, the eternal pulsating of the heart—his heart, mine, yours. How they save and obliterate us. How they could be scientifically explained and spiritually questioned. How they hint at the possibility of the past life and augment the prospect of the next. How they appear so solid, so indestructible and at once so transient, so dishearteningly impermanent like the joy that is found and suddenly lost, sometimes forever.

Apichatpong once told me that the magic of memories is in the fact that he could inherit them from his parents, like a family heirloom. You can have the memories even though you didn’t experience them, he says, and the elusive nature of what is inherited and what is actually remembered constitutes the enigma of Syndromes and a Century, a film in which time is fragmented and memories compartmentalised, in which the scientific and the spiritual dance a surreal pas de deux that juxtaposes the present and the future—or the past and the present. The thin, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t storyline is taken from the lives of the filmmaker’s parents when they were both working at a rural hospital in Khon Kaen, a province in northeastern Thailand. Almost the entire film is set in a hospital, warm and wistful in the first half and synthetically clinical in the second, as we meet patients with a variety of syndromes and doctors who seem to be afflicted by a repertoire of invisible maladies themselves. Apichatpong spent his early years hanging around the wards where his parents worked, and in this strange, funny, and affecting film he juggles the unlikely playground of his childhood—where sickness was an everyday spectacle—with the ethereal longing to find universal healing for all human conditions.

By also dabbling into the memories he never had, Apichatpong suggests the possibility of paralleled lives, of dreams that invade reality, probably of the joy and agony of reincarnations. The Thai title of the film is Saeng Satawat—“lights of the century”—and it is the director’s ceremonial experiment with lights that gives the film its bifurcated tonalities. In the balmy aesthetics of the first half, the supple rays of natural sunlight always dash the swaying banana trees outside the windows of Doctor Tei’s examination room. The physical presence of the hospital seems to demarcate a medical domain that is totally separated from the verdant inferno of green paddies and teeming forests, always dappled by the tropical sun-glare. Through her windows, Doctor Tei stares out at the flora kingdom that is so close but feels so remote, and there’s a deep sense of poignancy when we understand that she’s trying to grasp her own ungraspable memories. It’s the possibility of love that leads her out of the shell of her hospital, and the young doctor’s romantic encounters with a botanist, who repeatedly boasts of his rare breed of wild orchid that glows in the dark. These encounters take place in chlorophyll-ised environments of leafy verandas and tree-embraced corners that had once, she’s told, fallen into the shadow of a total solar eclipse.

If the interrelation between the technological and the natural, or the scientific and the supernatural, seems possible at first glance as doctors prescribe pills to the patients while the patients prescribes herbal potions to their doctors, Apichatpong proposes another scheme at the film’s midway mark and plunges us into the territory of sharp lighting, of artificial fluorescent flares and tungsten illuminations as his camera travels into the bowel of the hospital, where grotesque medical equipments and soul-sucking metal pipes promise both the redemption and the end of human organisms. Here the strong, harsh light and disturbing drone of strange machines suggest a dystopian realm where healing is attempted but not necessarily possible. Because Apichatpong’s films always affect us on both the conscious and unconscious level, the real-light-versus-fake-light strategy is not merely a matter of exercise. It is inherent to the fundamental concept of exploring the presence of fleeting memories, real or artificial, that seem so bright and clear in one second and foggy and untouchable in another.

“I’m not a fan of Mozart. But when I listen to his music, I hear the fluid, watery quality in it. I hear how the music seems to take different shapes as it tries to move forward. Maybe there’s the same quality in my film.”

Apichatpong, 36, studied architecture in Khon Kaen and filmmaking in Chicago. The marvel of his films, especially for the Thai audience who digs his brand of rural surrealism, thus comes from the intuitive naturalness that is framed within the precise, almost scientific structure of the narrative. Apichatpong didn’t study music, but in his quest to stretch the limit of his art, the filmmaker may have tapped into some cosmic energy that influenced so many artists that came long before him. Although unintentionally, the structure of Syndromes and a Century—when we see the same scenes being repeated with slight variations, as if memories are playing tricks on us—bears a resemblance to the fugue form in classical music composition. Perfected by Bach though rarely used by Mozart, the fugue form features a melody that keeps repeating itself while also branching off into new melodies based on the original theme. The organized fluidity of Apichatpong’s movies may attract the label of (post-) modernism, but it’s actually a traditional art form practiced by baroque composers long before cinema was invented.

Yet again, Apichatpong’s movies often display that subtle dissonance, like when a minor chord lurks beneath a major key and intimates a subconscious fantasy of melodies that exist but which we cannot hear, or a dream that’s forcing its way to the surface. In reading his previous film, the Cannes-winning Tropical Malady, a Thai critic (okay, it was me) compared the film’s dual structure and its primitive surrealism to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Such an unlikely comparison may illustrate Apichatpong’s unique talent that has been born out of his status as a Third-World filmmaker: despite the fact that all his works are firmly rooted in Thai sensibilities, in homegrown melodrama and provincial unsophistication, they also draw their artistic license from the vast pool of Western intellectualism. So the world sees glimpses of Renoir and Bach and Kiarostami in Apichatpong’s movies, but we also see ancient myths, jungle yarns and cheap pulp fictions of totally Thai origins. As the world sees lyrical metaphors and mystical conjuring, we see the mundane misery and honest humor patented only to the Thais.

The director hardly uses any orchestral music in his films; he’s not familiar with the fugue form or Stravinsky’s masterpiece, and my take on those musical analogies might have sounded, in retrospect, unduly ambitious. Apichatpong may have detected the “watery quality” of Mozart’s music, but in truth the filmmaker is known to be so fond of cloying Thai pop numbers that sound at once earnest and utterly cheesy. In Blissfully Yours, an upbeat tune sung by a sweet-voiced teenager launches the film into its Edenic second half. In Tropical Malady, a folk singer croons the sadly prophetic “Wana Sawat” (“Jungle Romance”) before a young soldier treks into a humid forest in search of his lover who’s transformed into a tiger. In Syndromes and a Century though, a sentimental dentist sings a brooding love song at a dusty temple fair before a classical guitarist chips in a tune of nostalgic beauty that somehow complements the gentle aesthetics of the visual. Apichatpong may not be a Mozart fan, but at that particular moment when the nylon strings are plucked the enigma evaporates and all memories seem so clear—it’s the rare moment of luminous beauty known to all Mozart listeners since three centuries ago.

“I’m not religious. But I often consult religious books when I have emotional problems. I believe in the idea of letting things go, of not feeling attached. But I always find that it’s hard to do that.”

People have thrown one particular question at me countless of times since I first started writing about Apichatpong’s works in the 1999: What do his films mean? Or even more sinister: What are the messages? In my early naiveté, I satisfied them by fishing out some hokum-sounding answers, but lately I’ve been in the habit of giving those inquirers a shrug. Maybe Apichatpong’s films are not meant to be explained, but felt. They enrich and wrap us whole in their smothering hugs not because they can be understood but perceived. We receive the images through the eyes and they go directly to the heart. Like great music, his films bypass our critical faculty since they can connect with us on an unconscious level, leaving a languorous swirl of emotions before the brain is jolted into processing the data—if any data-processing still matters after all.

I first interviewed him for my newspaper when he was struggling to finish his first feature-length film Mysterious Object at Noon. Apichatpong was still an unknown filmmaker who had just come back from his study in Chicago, though his experimental shorts had generated a certain buzz among a small circle of cinephiles in Bangkok. I wrote a few articles on his next movie Blissfully Yours, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes but was mutilated by local censors when it opened in a single theatre here. And I was lucky enough to be in Cannes in 2004 when Tropical Malady was screened in competition and eventually won a Jury Prize, the first time a Siamese movie was honored with a major international film award.

“Joe”—that’s what Apichatpong calls himself in English, though his nickname in Thai is a vowel-twister that’s pronounced somewhat like “Joei”. Sometimes I’d like to call him “gentleman Joe” (it hasn’t entered the mainstream yet!). And from the very first time I interviewed this amiable man, I experienced a mix of curiosity and frustration since it was difficult to understand the description of the film he tried to give me. He knew it and occasionally sympathized by saying: “I know it’s hard to understand. You have to see the film in order to [understand].” For most people though, being unable to understand a movie by simply reading its synopsis in a newspaper is unacceptable; and while some people are driven by a mix of curiosity and frustration to see an Apichatpong movie, most viewers feel only the latter. Frustration even transforms into dread, and I’d feel upset with myself when I realize that sometimes my articles on a new film of Joe’s often sound like a warning sticker that this may not be a movie for everybody, especially regular multiplex-goers.

“I make films from my personal wavelength, and I know that maybe not many people share the same wavelength as mine, but that’s all right,” he once said. What I’ve tried to convince myself lately is that perhaps people don’t get Apichatpong’s movies not because they are difficult but because they are very simple. In a time when our consciousness is clogged by overexposure to fictions and moving images, stories based on memories and myths—the oldest stories of humankind—might have seemed like something from an alien wavelength. Apichatpong’s films always feature nature as the force that affects the biochemical and metaphysical workings of human beings. You could say that it’s not easy to understand nature, but then again there is nothing easier. The Thai word for nature, by the way, is dharma-chart, whose linguistic root is based on the word dharma. In the Buddhist dharma teachings we’re told that everything is impermanent. It’s just illusion, or dream, or memory. Gentleman Joe’s is the cinema of dharma-chart—the cinema of impermanence. As he himself is learning how to let things go, to not feel attached, perhaps we should do the same when watching his films. There’s nothing easier than to let yourself be swept into the irresistible embrace of nature. Maybe there’s even no enigma after all.

Reprinted from the New Crowned Hope catalogue. With kinds thanks to Simon Field and Dr. Maria Awecker.