Wow, I’m Old: Syndromes and a Century

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I no longer remember the exact date at which I first saw Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006). I do know that it was at a screening at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which screened all of the films made for the New Crowned Hope Festival sometime in the first week of September 2007. That means that I first saw Syndromes and a Century a decade ago … a disheartening thought.

I keenly remember an energy crackling in the MFA screening room while I was watching Syndromes and a Century, in excess of the film itself. Syndromes isn’t just a great film. It was also a personal revelation. For a moment, in that theater, I felt as if I had reached out and directly touched the beating heart of contemporary cinema. I felt privileged to be seeing a work so vital. I carried that energy with me for several years, as I moved to Chicago and immersed myself in its film culture, wearing out my CTA card traveling to the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Music Box Theatre, the Nightingale, Facets, Chicago Filmmakers, the Chicago International Film Festival (where I saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), the Chicago Underground Film Festival, Onion City Film Festival, and of course the neighborhood treasure that was Doc Films. I kept up with the cutting edge of world cinema, of art cinema, of experimental cinema, riding a high that began that September in Boston.

I no longer feel as if I have my finger on the heartbeat of contemporary cinema. The movies I see these days tend to be new works by directors I already like, and have liked for a decade. Every now and then I’ll take advantage of the footwork done by stellar programmers and expose myself to something entirely new. But I have fallen off the cutting edge of cinema. True, a lot of this is because I now devote my time and energies to keeping up with the indie game scene. (And, of course, television is better these days.) But it still makes me feel out of touch. And, frankly, old.

Anyway, I decided to take this 10-year anniversary as an opportunity to do something that I tried to do for a decade and never succeeded at: actually write about Syndromes and a Century.

I’ll begin with a quick synopses. It is impossible to tease out a coherent “plot” from the scenes we see in Syndromes and a Century. But it will be difficult to lay out any analysis without first solidifying some details, so here goes.

In a rural hospital, a doctor named Dr. Toey interviews Dr. Nohng, an army medic applying for a position at the hospital. (Dr. Toey, it should be noted, is never actually named in the film’s translated dialogue, but I needed a convenient way to refer to her, so I turned to some extra-textual sources.) After the interview, she walks down a corridor with a colleague, moving out of site as the camera drifts toward a window and the opening credits play. Near the tail end of the opening credits, the still-audible dialogue makes it obvious that the actors have dropped character, but for some reason Apichatpong has left the recorded audio in.

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Dr. Toey sees a monk for a check-up. After a quick physical examination, she patiently waits while he tells her a story about his chicken-filled nightmares, which he thinks somehow contributes to his aches and pains. Meanwhile, Ple, a dentist, performs a cleaning on another monk. The monk admits not wanting to be a monk, and expresses regret for not following another career path. Ple tells the monk that he’s also a singer.

A young man, in an army uniform like Dr. Nohng, present at Nohng’s interview and seen stalking and artfully avoiding Dr. Toey around the hospital in interstitial scenes, finally confronts Dr. Toey. He unexpectedly confesses his love for her. She takes him to a secluded area, and, to console him in his obviously unrequited love, recounts some recent events in her life.

In Dr. Toey’s story, she meets and orchid dealer, Noom, 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, 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 feeling 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.

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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 looses him in the dark, and ends up sitting in his dentist’s office, alone.

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Suddenly, we are in a different hospital: a sleekly modern hospital in Bangkok. The characters, however, are the same. The story appears to have started over. Dr. Toey is again interviewing Dr. Nohng. The dialogue this time around is nearly identical to the first time, although there are slight divergences. (Dr. Toey, for instance, asks more follow-up questions this time around.)

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Again, we see the monk, again telling a story about his chicken-related nightmares. The story is slightly different this time, and the monk isn’t talking to Dr. Toey, but instead another doctor. The angle has also reversed from the first time we see this scene: this time, we see the monk’s face in a long take, whereas previously we had seen Dr. Toey’s face.

We see Ple cleaning the teeth of the younger monk again. 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 is a hematologist, who spends his breaks reminiscing with a 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.

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Rather than hear a story about the love life of Dr. Joey, 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.

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Alright, let’s get down to business.

Transformation, Identity, Stories, and Bodies

It is illuminating to place Apichatpong’s filmography against that of David Lynch. Both directors 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. In Lynch, there is something scarily schizoid about this tendency. From Lost Highway‘s exploration of a fugue state to the doppelgängers and tulpas populating Twin Peaks: The Return, the idea of personalities dissolving into disunity and multiplicity is deeply uncanny, and therefore inherently scary. Cue the deep, dissonant drones on the soundtrack. “Once we cross, it could all be different.”

For Apichatpong, this isn’t the case at all. I am wary of painting with a broad Buddhist brush in a way that is culturally naïve and insensitive. (Apichatpong has expressed interest in Buddhism, but also said he suspects that “filmmaking contradicts Buddhism” in its attempt to give viewers a revelation while skipping the process of meditation.[i]) But I can’t avoid the feeling that the difference between Lynch and Apichatpong is the different between Western psychoanalytic/surrealist traditions and the alternate possibilities opened up by Eastern Buddhist traditions. Apichatpong’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 re-live 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 they’ve slipped away to—shares structural similarities to moments of character transition Lynch uses in Lost Highway (Patricia Arquette’s two characters disappearing offscreen, twice) and Mulholland Dr. (Betty disappearing right before Rita opens the box).

But there are other, smaller transformations and split identities suffusing the film, as well. 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.

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But no matter how fragmented we may be spiritually, how open to continue re-interpretation and rebirth, there are still those parts of us that persist, resist change, and imposes 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.

Across Apichatpong’s filmography, we see ways in which bodies and stories reverberate against each other, in both destructive and constructive ways, as the twin canvases on which identity is authored, the ways in which we fix ourselves (or are fixed, without our consent) in the flow of shifting self.

This push-and-pull between bodies and stories in the construction of identity finds perhaps its clearest manifestation early on in Apichatpong’s 2002 film Blissfully Yours. Min (Min Oo) is an undocumented Burmese migrant laborer, taken by his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) to a Thai hospital. Min’s fluency (or lack thereof) in Thai would immediately raise questions, so his girlfriend and another, older woman concoct a story about a sore throat to prevent him from talking directly to the doctor. The doctor, though, directly examines Min’s throat, and sees no irritation, rendering his continued silence conspicuous. A spun tale versus traces upon the body: two forces collide, as the doctor drifts dangerously close to ascertaining Min’s legal, state-defined identity.

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Syndromes and a Century doesn’t offer anything up quite as on-the-nose as this scene from Blissfully Yours, but it still delves into this push and pull between stories and bodies, as a way of breaking out of transformative self-negation and asserting one’s identity. The fact that many of the film’s characters are doctors means that observations about bodies often give rise to stories, stories that contain and make meaning of those bodies. Dr. Toey’s saintly patience with the monk exhaustively recounting his chicken nightmares marks one notable instance of this balance. But it’s really all over the place: several of the stories recounted in the film are prompted by someone noticing a limp, or a tattoo.

The Disruptive Force of Play

We can add another ingredient into the Apichatpong stew: play.

Play is a disruptive force in Apichatpong’s films. Storytelling and narrativization are the means by which the coherence of self is asserted in the face of the temporal impermanence. Stories propose a process of causality, as a way of papering over change. Moments of play, though, are moments of entropy. In these moments, the narrative breaks down, moments when new possible selves emerge, new relationships to the world are enacted. Stories are how we put together the puzzles of the events of our lives. Play is when we shake up the puzzle box.

In his essay “Reflections on History and Play,” Giorgio Agamben teases out inverse relationships between play, ritual, and calendrical time: “ritual fixes and structures the calendar; play, on the other hand … changes and destroys it.”[ii] For the record, I don’t actually agree with the division between ritual and play that Agamben sets up here. (He cites Huizinga on the matter, which is confusing, as Huizinga most definitely would not be on board with this division at all.) But I do think Agamben is right to cast play as a disruption of the calendar, one that, by extension, can be a disruption to the ways in which we conceive of and narrate histories. Pretense and make-believe are the cousins of “what-if?” 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 Apichatpong’s films.

This antagonism between storytelling and play was present already in Apichatpong’s debut feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). The story at its center is told through the process of an exquisite corpse, passed along from participant to participant as Apichatpong documents life in rural and urban Thailand. Although it’s possible to characterize exquisite corpse techniques as “collaborative storytelling,” Apichatpong is also obviously interested in exquisite corpse as a form of play in which stories can get mangled, in which each transition between participants injects a destabilizing moment of chaos. Apichatpong uses this destabilization to imbue the film with a symmetrical structure. First, we move from relative order into chaotic play, as Apichatpong removes the central story from the care of seasoned storytellers (including a theater troupe), and puts it into the mouths of a cluster of pre-teen boys, whose short attention spans and lack of investment in the exercise results in the story’s central players being violently and unceremoniously killed. We then unexpectedly transition to the short epilogue “At Noon,” in which storytelling-play is replaced by bodily play. Here, chaotic play gradually moves into more structured activities, as children playing freewheeling and aimless soccer make way for adults enjoying a rigorous and choreographed calisthenic workout.

Again, Syndromes isn’t quite as neat. It’s trickier, with a few more folds. But we can still see glimpses of the same themes.

In place of 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 form this environment so that they can be later dropped into another one.

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And, just as in Mysterious Object at Noon, Apichatpong displays a fondness for symmetry. 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 reverse. But, as if to make up for his lack of strict chronological reversal, Apichatpong 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.

And, of course, Syndromes ends with sport, as well.

The Remainder

At one point, years ago, I was dead set on publishing an academic article on Apichatpong’s first four features. Again and again, I returned to these themes—the persistence of identity vs. magical transformation, bodies vs. stories, the destabilizing potentials of play—attempting to chart them out once and for all, laying everything out in a perfect diagram that would explain the balance of each of these elements in each of his features.

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I couldn’t ever get the pieces to entirely fit. (That’s the reason you’re reading this as a blog post now, as opposed to an article published back in 2010 or so.) This was a frustrating experience, but also, I think, a necessary one. These days, I tend to think of films and filmographies that click together in this way as being too pat. The longer I have been in the analysis business, the more convinced I have become that truly great art lets you in on some grand themes, while at the same time refusing neatness.

When it came to Apichatpong’s films, Syndromes and a Century included, I was always tripping over some remainder, some errant detail that none of my attempted assessments could ever account for. I think now that this is what keeps great art alive, while mediocre art gets forgotten. I have no reason to suspect I won’t still remember Syndromes and a Century vividly another decade from now.

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(Some of the thoughts in this post were dredged up from an ancient email chain with Can Eskinazi, an old friend with whom I have not spoken in far too long.)

[i]. Quandt, James. “Push and Pull: An Exchange with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.” In Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Ed. James Quandt. Vienna: Filmmuseum SYNEMA Publikationen, 2009. Pg 184.

[ii]. Agamben, Giorgio. Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience. 1978. Trans. Liz Heron. New York: Verso, 1993. Pg 77.

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