Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hello, "Joe!"

After campaigning to review UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (aka 2010's Palme d'Or winner) for GreenCine, I got the assignment. And now I'm a bit terrified. Part of it is that many other much smarter and more qualified folks have already spilled ink about the thing. I’m not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as I am clawing my way up their backs. But worse is the fact that, other than a charming short, I've never seen another film by Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul.

This holiday weekend, I began to remedy this bit of cine-oblivion on my part by taking in SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, Weerasethakul's fourth feature. I'd hoped to catch up with all of his work prior to the Tuesday, July 12th DVD release of BOONMEE but, realistically, that's not going to happen. What follows are my flop sweat-drenched ruminations on SYNDROMES.

[I realize two very important things as I type this: the people who are reading this who know who Weerasethakul is will already have resources at their disposal that do a much better job parsing the film. And the people who are reading this who have never heard of Weerasethakul (and, most likely, arrived at this blog using the Google search for "skeleton wedding") have probably stopped reading.]

SYNDROMES is one of those films where the “what is it about?” question is almost laughable. The film is “about” your reaction to it, a ridiculously solipsistic thing to say. But, unless you want me to start getting all Intentional Fallacy-ish, that's all I got.

Internet synopses of  SYNDROMES are misleading and, often, erroneous. The write-up over at Flixter even transposes some of the characters’ genders (a mistake that I imagine Weerasethakul would relish).

In the shorthand of the film, my best stab at what the film is about is partly this:


And, above all, this:

I'll back up:

SYNDROMES is about a doctor (Nantarat Sawaddiku) going through her daily routine at a rural hospital. She interviews a new doctor (Jaruchai Iamaram), checks in on a cantankerous old monk…

… and responds to the amorous advances of an awkward fellow doctor (Nu Nimsomboon). There’s a subplot involving a young monk discussing vocational aspirations with his dentist (who moonlights as a Thai country musician) and a flashback involving the nurse’s (nonromantic) relationship with an orchid expert. (Even as I write this, I realize that it's misleading and inaccurately superficial.) 

The most significant wrinkle in SYNDROMES’ plot occurs about halfway through the film’s 100 minute running time. Here, the film restarts, and begins restaging the same stories with the same characters, this time in a sterile, urban hospital.

And it’s in this bifurcated structure where SYNDROMES appears to be about anything. Repeating, then, the above pictures:

These frames depict Dr. Nohng (Iamaram) in the separate scenarios. (Disregard the subtitle in the top shot; my frame-grabbin’ resources are pretty paltry.) In the top frame, he’s a seemingly incompetent military doctor reassigned to the rural hospital. Below that, he becomes a seemingly very competent staffer at the gargantuan city hospital. Note the severe difference in lighting and coloring (right down to the doctor’s complexion). The contrast is obvious. Hence my mention that this shot contains what the film is really about:

Here, in the film’s second half, Dr. Toey (Sawaddiku) experiences a moment of glum repose before the hospital closes (and the film ends). The bold jungle greens that mark the first section of the film reappear in that curtain, dominated by (or maybe infringing on?) the cool blue-whites of the hospital.

So perhaps part of SYNDROMES’ aim is to explore the contrast between city and country (and, by extension, traditional and modern lifestyles) or at least the stereotypes surrounding both. 

Consider the monk and his dentist:

Here the two men idly chat about music and destiny, keeping up a tone throughout the film that I can best describe as drolly numinous. There’s a pay off (of sorts) later where the dentist, having established a spiritual connection with the monk, hands the monk a CD of his music and then confesses that he feels responsible for his the death of his brother.

Here again is the same scenario, reimagined for the sterile trappings of the megahospital:

There’s no idle chatter here, only the sound of the drill and a few muttered instructions to the dentist’s aide. The dentist attempts several times to cover the monk’s eyes with a blue cloth until the monk meekly requests it be left off.

And scene. There’s no further interaction between the men in the second segment.

A lot of reviews online gush about SYNDROMES as a film “with heart,” warm, tender, wistful, happy, etc. While that’s certainly all there (along with a very dry sense of humor), I think it arrives at a fairly sinister place.
Near the end of the first section, there’s a mystical interlude involving an eclipse:

Dr. Toey is having a picnic with her friend, Pa Jane (Jenjira Pongpas). While discussing matters of the heart, Pa Jane remarks that the glade they’re in has a magical power. The eclipse occurs in a flashback, gently accented by whirring jungle ambience.

About an hour later, the eclipse shot is echoed:                                              

This time, we’re looking at a vent inside of a machine room within the hospital where prosthetics are manufactured. Deadly carbon monoxide gas is being sucked outside, creating a horrendous slurping sound like a satanic Hoover. The sound becomes deafening and then:

We’re outside. A series of shots of people in the city’s parks. Enjoying nature within neatly proscribed areas, culminating in:

a massive exercise class set to absurdly belligerent electronic music. The participants flail in near-perfect symmetry, looking like wind-up automatons.

The electronic music continues over the credits but they eventually fade away, succumbing to the sound of wind through leaves and creaking branches (significantly, the first shot of the film is a tree blowing gently in the breeze).

And that’s about all I’ve got. Here are some more disconnected thoughts:

- I’ve run into this exact phrase: “The real-life love story between filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's parents inspired this romantic drama which follows three separate stories occurring over a span of forty years.” There are at least three things wrong with this:

1) Characterizing the film as a “love story” is a noble – and failed – attempt to categorize it within a recognizable genre framework.
2) “Three separate stories” suggests even a single “story” thread. And, beyond the doctors and the dentist/monk, where is this third story?
3) The claim that the two sections of the film are separated by 40 years is an impossibility unless the second section takes place at least twenty years in the future. The dentist in the first section has a compact disc. These didn’t really show up on the scene until 1982.

 I know nothing about Weerasethakul’s parents, so I’m guessing that claim has validity based on press material or an interview or something. Again, I’m very much out of my league here and am anxiously awaiting the delivery of James Quandt’s book on Weerasethakul to enlighten me on many of these points.

- The actually title (according to the never-reliable Wikipedia) is LIGHT OF THE CENTURY which makes a lot more sense than SYNDROMES. Light of all kinds is crucial to the film (and not in the obvious, cinematographic, way). The jungle section’s scenes are bathed in Malick Magic Hour Gold:

The hospital section is suffocated by fluorescence: 

There’s also the aforementioned eclipse, talk of an orchid that glows in the dark, and a series of shots of hospital lights flickering off, to name a few others.

- The fourth wall is gleefully busted several times. My favorite instance occurs when a world-weary television pundit takes a break from drinking her pre-show whiskey and offers to read the chakra of a boy who’s suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning:

The camera dollies back to reveal the pundit’s friend, staring directly into the camera with a faintly disapproving smile:

The film has many of these kind of moments, the type we normally dub "Lynchian" though they belong to a much older tradition. The playful disdain for narrative, not to mention the plot shift a la MULLHOLLAND DR., make the film very Lynchian.

Another image couplet, underscoring the film’s casual marriage of the sacred and the mundane:

In neither scenario does the Buddha occupy a place of real reverence. I know nothing of Weerasethakul’s religious persuasions so I don’t know whether to read this as a gentle mockery or a comment on modern life’s quashing of the spiritual or both.

- Lastly: in the second section, Dr. Nohng’s girlfriend tries to convince him to move to a new development outside of Bangkok. Here’s one of the pictures she uses to plead her case:

I think that a distrust, if not an outright dislike, of modernity’s encroachment upon the natural world is (at least in part) what SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY is about. 

[Post Script: It’s a great film by the way. My initial grade is around the 75-80 range. It needed a day or two of processing but it really dug its way into my skull. I look forward to my further adventures with “Joe.”]

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