Syndromes and a Century
The fifth feature film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is superficially a retelling of the moment that the director’s parents met at an occupational psychology interview in a Thai country hospital. This description, however, misrepresents Syndromes’ visually refreshing meditative exploration of first encounters, memories, and place.
Syndromes’ meandering narrative presents events as though the camera happened to pass in front of them. The film cuts between individuals that are unconnected by anything besides working in the same hospital; stories remain half-told; characters talk about seemingly inconsequential things; and the same stories are recycled and repeated throughout the film.
And yet the glimpses afforded into these people’s lives are somehow transfixing and illuminating. This is Apichatpong’s genius, as his unique visual style gently and playfully reminds the viewer of the privilege of being granted access to the retelling of these moments of individuals meeting. The camera remains an unobtrusive participant as events slowly unfold in still and medium shots, a technique that bestows a quiet dignity and significance far beyond the apparent simplicity of what we are shown.
Having settled the viewer into the role of observer, Apichatpong then draws us into acknowledging the falseness of these realities. The opening meeting ends with the characters leaving the room; the camera follows and is drawn to a view over a balcony where it remains transfixed upon the lush green vista as we hear the increasingly distant characters discuss work. Towards the end of the conversation, the actors come out of character and discuss the day’s filming.
Throughout the film, the camera wanders off, distracted and fascinated by the spaces in which these lives are lived. A ventilation system in a hospital basement provides the opportunity for one such occurrence, and reminds us of the camera’s and, by default, our presence. Nonetheless, this acknowledgement of the createdness of these retellings is achieved in such an effortless manner that it is as though Apichatpong were doing something entirely natural and so, whilst unexpected, it does not feel like a surprise.
The seamless integration of the audience into the narrative that occurs in the opening scene, which is later repeated almost word for word, provides a key to the film’s heart: that in the encounter of two individuals something holy occurs.
In bearing witness to one such encounter, Syndromes & a Century celebrates the moments of creation in such meetings. It also suggests that the cyclical retelling of these moments through conversations, stories, or films is a similarly creative act that points towards the essence of the eternal. The presence of the camera and audience—a witness—is thus an essential component of that retelling and of Apichatpong’s visual style.
Apichatpong, however, consistently grounds his observation of transcendence in the mundane and often silly realities of daily experience. In one of the film’s more touching moments a dentist that moonlights as a club singer serenades his patient, a monk who has abandoned his wish to be a DJ. The encounter results in the disclosure that the dentist believes the monk to be a reincarnation of his brother whose death he always felt responsible for.
The moment is revelatory and yet little weight is attached to it; it happens, it is felt, and it passes. The film thus ends with a scene of a group of people in tracksuits jumping along to an exercise class in a park. The ridiculousness of the scenario is fitting for a film that is wise enough to make allusions towards transcendence without losing sight of the beauty of the commonplace.