Dir/scr: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Thai-Fr-Aust. 2006. 105mins.
Unconventional enough toplease fervent admirers of his previous work like Blissfully Yours and TropicalMalady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul'sSyndromes And ACentury is, even more than its precedents, a visual notebook that resistsall temptation to opt for a narrative, instead staying faithful to itsenigmatic title.
Divided into almost equalhalves and vaguely based on the director's childhood memories, which are thentransplanted into different backgrounds and periods, it portrays a femaledoctor's tentative courtship in a country hospital some time ago, then switchesit to a modern facility.
Since there is no real storyto tell, the audience is invited to use the images as incentives for personalreflections in the tradition of art cinema. Whether those reflections areultimately identical to the ones intended by the film-maker is less importantthan that their imagination is fertilised by whatthey see on the screen.
One of the new Crowned Hopeprojects, initiated by the city of
Weerasethakul, whose parents were both doctors, claims the firstpart of Syndromes And A Century isdedicated to his mother and the second part to his father; he even went back tohis hometown, Khon Kaen, innorth-eastern Thailand, but very little of what he remembered from hischildhood still existed.
The film is essentially a reflectionon the changing shape of things, just as the title promises. The differences gobeneath the initial ones in which rural medics and traditional medicine arecontrasted with the modern age. There are also hints at Buddhist speculationson previous incarnations and relationships with the spiritual world.
Thus Weerasethakulsharply contrasts the pastoral green and soft country contours of his memoryand the hard bleached surfaces, long white corridors and starched uniforms ofdoctors and nurses of the present. But he also shows how the old clay buddhas in the gardens at thestart are later dwarfed by massive bronze statues, and how the vast greenfields spread wide are erased by concrete and cement with patches of pasturesdesigned by human hand.
Employing a cast of amateurswho have never appeared before in a film - and who are less supposed to actthan simply be - Weerasethakul sticks, for the first half,to a static camera, always in long or medium shots and rarely changing angles.One shot of a green pasture, entirely accompanied with sound off-screen,suggests memories of Marguerite Duras' experiments inIndia Song (1975).
In the second part thecamera starts moving and the cutting is more flexible, if far fromconventional. But a wicked sense of humor starts to sneak in, whether throughthe different kind of songs on the soundtrack (a dentist sings ballads in thefirst half; techno features in the second) or seeing a woman doctor pulling astiff drink out of an artificial limb to re-comfort her before going live on TV(which she does for free, she says, because state TV never has the funds to payits contributors).
In both halves, however,images are bright, the use of landscape exemplary and framing and depth of theshots remarkably accurate.
Weerasethakul himself has said that the approximate repetition ofthe first part of the film in the second is a reference to re-incarnation; itis also tempting to add that, since this is part of a Mozart celebration, thisanalogy could also extend to musical variations on more than one theme.Granted, they may be more in the spirit of Philip Glass than Mozart - but then,this is the whole point of the exercise.
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