Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
Thai Title: Sang sattawat
In Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), separating the pastoral beauty of a Russian estate and the steely cold interiors of a spacecraft is a lengthy sequence of Kris Kelvin traveling in a car through the highways of an unknown metropolis. The sequence feels obsolete nowadays, Tokyo during the time the film was shot can no longer hold that futuristic illusion Tarkovsky was aiming for.
Syndromes and a Century, part of the New Crowned Hope which celebrates Mozart's 250th Birth Anniversary by commissioning films (including Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006) and Paz Encina's contemplative Paraguayan Hammock (2006)), I believe is Apichatpong Weerasethakul science fiction film, or at least a film wherein he touches on a vision of the future. It's not improbable, Weerasethakul is touching on the discourse between past and present (why limit the discourse between the two junctures of time, when it can be expanded to concern the future).
Nearing the film's end, we get a sequence similar both in use (transition of time) and practicality (the lack of budget or aesthetic considerations in envisioning a Utopian future) wherein hospital machinery and the surroundings are slowly being covered with mist; Weerasethakul's camera lingers and observes in painstaking clarity the seconds and minutes before settling with a shot of a metallic tube sucking the smoke from the room. That difficult puzzle piece segues to an outdoor sequence where people are doing calisthenics in the rhythm of a joyous tune, two Buddhist monks are playing with a remote control-powered UFO and everything is in a state of euphoria. Is this Weerasethakul's vision of the future, wherein hospitals have become obsolete (and diseases too) and the world takes the form of a public park (the same way Tokyo in the 70's is Tarkovsky's vision of the future in Solaris)?
At first glance, Syndromes and a Century feels like it lacks any shape. Absent the two-fold structure (or three-fold if you count the final sequence as one), it's a series of lovely images, conversations and human gestures tied within the bounds of the subject time and space Weerasethakul drafts. Several elements overlap in these shapeless structures of time and space such as the opening job interview between a male doctor discharged from a military base and a female doctor with the latter's insistent lover on standby, or the elderly monk and his offers of healing roots, or the dental appointment between the dentist and a younger monk, or the awkward courtship ritual between the lover and the lady doctor, or the woman who walks with a limp.
The identity feels like the skeleton key to the unsolvable lock of Weerasethakul's logic; but then we are charged with differences that deepens this beautiful puzzle to the point of keeping its viewers in a perpetual motion of admiring its mysteries from a distance. When the admirer confronts the female doctor and asks her to marry him, we are entreated to a tale about the orchid specialist she met and presumably fell in love with, until Weerasethakul abruptly ends the tale to give way to the dentist's blossoming friendship with the young monk, which mysteriously ends with a slight sense of rejection (the dentist follows the monk to his clinic but finds it empty).
These events doesn't seem to have any meaning when juxtaposed with the events of the second half of the film; the new doctor's discovery of the hospital's basement where the soldiers and their family are treated, and also provides secluded room for afternoons of idle chatter and cups of brandy from a half-filled bottle mischievously hidden in a polyester leg. The same doctor's conversation with his girlfriend who asks him to relocate to a seaside industrial site where she will be working in the future, before torridly kissing him and causing him an embarrassing erection (which I presume is the cause of this film's being banned in Thailand), ends that portion, again with a subtle feeling of rejection.
There are also little details that punctuate or enunciate the film's thematic elegance --- the way a group of nurses leaves one who has to tie her shoelaces is quaintly relates to a similar group of male hospital employees who also leaves a member forced to tie his shoelaces; or in that brandy-drinking session wherein Weerasethakul's camera floats to show the faces of the doctors and then settles with an awkward framing where one of the doctors curiously looks straight into the camera; or the casual shots of the perpetuated (by statues and photographs) personalities of the past.
Syndromes and a Century is a film that refuses to be caught or boxed in conventional terms. Despite that, the film conveys so much that it's never difficult to sit through it and taking whatever the film offers you. Even if viewed in a state of daydreaming stupor, you'll still be able to grasp the cleverly mysterious romantic beats of Weerasethakul's film.