Syndromes and a Century Review

Released by the BFI last week, Anthony Nield looks at their Region 2 handling of the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

In discussing Syndromes and a Century, the fourth solo feature from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it is perhaps best to avoid any kind of synopsis or a discussion of its characters and themes in concrete terms. Firstly, this is because the film doesn’t really exist when it comes to plot. There’s no storytelling as such, but rather a series of interconnected and interwoven vignettes that soon become something far greater than the sum or their parts. (The set-up involves two hospitals, one rural and one urban, which may represent the past and the future, or perhaps even exist in parallel.) Secondly – and more importantly – there’s the fact that any kind of straightforward descriptions risks alienating potential audiences. Look at the characters and we find a singing dentist, a monk who once wished of becoming a DJ and another whose sleep is tormented by vivid dreams of chickens exacting their revenge. Look at some of the minor details and we find a solar eclipse, a mass outdoor exercise regime to kitsch Asian pop and a glow-in-the-dark orchid. In other words, it sounds as though Weerasethakul is trying too hard, being wilfully wacky or perhaps striving for some imagined “cult” audience. Yet this really isn’t the case.

Indeed, Syndromes and a Century is one of the most relaxed examples of filmmaking I’ve come across in quite some time, both behind the camera and in front of the lens. The tone appears to have been taken from the moods of its non-professional actors: easy-going, prone to gentle humour, solipsistic even. The opening credits unfold over dialogue that soon gives way to the good-natured chatter of the real-life actors; it’s almost as though Weerasethakul is daring us not to take that which follows too seriously. And yet this isn’t a director taking a cinematic day off – he’s arguably produced his best work to date. The format is very much of a piece with Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours: films of distinct halves which complement and comment on each other, especially in the occasional casting of the same actors in dual roles (one for each half, or one for each hospital in Syndromes’ case). But the feeling is also that Weerasethakul has moved on. Such games and techniques are now so natural that he can toy with them more overtly or utilise them in stranger, more challenging ways.

It’s a cliché to say, but Syndromes and a Century is genuinely dreamlike. Comparisons have been made to David Lynch, which almost always smacks of lazy journalistic shorthand, but here they prove mostly true. As elusive as the hints of romance peppered throughout, the film feels as though it is escaping the viewer as it progresses rather than becoming easier to pin down. As said, we’re not getting a solid narrative, but sly nods and possible clues, charming little rhymes, digressions both beautiful and inconsequential. The central contrast between the events in the two hospitals that provides the framework is often merely that: something on which to hang hints of past lives and folk tales, studies in space and light and architecture (Weerasethakul’s first calling), reminiscences of childhood. In many ways you simply have to go with it and let the various ideas take hold.

All of which, perhaps, tells you nothing at all. Yet I’m loathe to divulge or discuss too deeply (and excuse the personal tone, but this is the reaction Syndromes can’t help but provoke) simply because it could break the illusion, both for myself and those who are yet to sample its pleasures. You really do need to experience this film fresh for a fullest realisation of its powers and then re-experience on your own terms. Moreover, the dreamlike nature continues in the fact that Syndromes and a Century becomes all the more elusive once its running time has elapsed; I’m still unable to pin it down in any exact terms though I’m certain it’s one of cinema’s finest achievements of the century so far.

The Disc

Presentation-wise Syndromes and a Century is more than acceptable but falls short of being excellent. The original 1.66:1 is correctly framed and anamorphically enhanced, the print itself is spotless throughout and the colours shine just as they should. Yet it’s also true that the sharpness doesn’t quite attain that which we’d expect from such a recent production. Certainly, this only really makes itself apparent during the long shots (and the overall picture quality is superior to Second Run’s Blissfully Yours disc of two years previous), but it’s a flaw nonetheless. As for the soundtrack here we find a pristine DD2.0 offering accompanied by optional English subtitles though I’m sure that cinema screenings would have favoured a 5.1 mix. Again, this may be nitpicking but it is worth pointing out.

The extras are pleasingly rich, ranging from a packed 22-page booklet, replete with articles, complete credits and production stills, to Weerasethakul’s 2005 short Worldly Desires. A festival commission this is more sketch than fully-realised achievement – in many ways it demonstrates the quality of Syndromes and a Century insofar as the main feature shows just how on the ball its director can be when he sets his mind to it. Worldly Desires, on the other hand, is ricochets between fascinating and infuriating, yet its presence is no doubt welcome seeing as it would unlikely warrant a separate release, plus the fact that the UK would rather see more Weerasethakul than less, no matter how minor.

Also present are the original trailer and a 15-minute interview the director. The latter is pleasingly rich with Weerasethakul discussing the various influences for Syndromes and a Century, both the Mozart connection (which came courtesy of it being commission as part of the New Crowned Hope collection of films – the Mozart piece, incidentally, was The Magic Flute, which provoked ideas of memory and the future, the past and technology) and that to the director’s own life and childhood in particular.

Note that unlike the main feature Worldy Desires is presented non-anamorphically and with burnt-in English subtitles. The 4:3-framed interview also comes with burnt-in subs.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Jul 09, 2008

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