Apichtapong Weerasethakul clearly has his own idea of what cinema ought to be, and arguably more than any currently working director, he is ready to shape the medium to his whims to achieve that vision. Who are we to tell him otherwise? Syndromes and a Century, bizarrely commissioned for Vienna’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amandeus Mozart’s birth, has only the most tentative connection of Mozart – indeed, it may not even recollect who Mozart is, largely because it doesn’t seem to exist on an Earth where Mozart himself existed. But it remains Weerasethakul’s masterwork.
Syndromes, unlike so many of my private muses in the modern cinematic world, isn’t plotless in a proper sense. Rather, it offers two meditations on one theme, choosing not to laminate a single tale in the certainty of finality but to propose two sometimes contradictory and often conciliatory variations on one theme. A story of a medical clinic. In a quiet, rural region of muted, but still vividly alive, Thailand, rendered by Weerasethakul as a place both hazily foreign and searingly personal. There’s a female doctor, but the film takes the route of so many great directors in the past – Yasujiro Ozu chiefly among them – by quietly resting his camera around her and gliding between characters and the minimal, docile space they occupy. It is a story about her, but only vicariously, told through the people and places she knows most dearly, or most transitively.
Or, is it the story of a medical clinic residing in the rigid, scrawl-like chaos that is the densely packed city of Bangkok, with a male doctor who interacts with many of the same characters, and with many of the same words? Is Weerasethakul’s film anarchic, calming, restless, composed, unkempt, fantastical, grounded, bruised, carefree, cackling, mournful, entropic, or metronomic? It is all of these things, and it is about the space between all of these things, a space that defies adjectives and exists on its own moral and spiritual plane.
It is, at some level, an ode to his mother and father, nominally defined by the two doctors, although the diegesis of the film positions those two figures in different times. More notably, the two variations on a theme retell the same tale with the moods and modulations switched up, so that the character of the cinema – meditative and Malickian in the first half and hectic and clipped in the other – convey the personalities of his parents, a veritable study in cinema as human identity. But it doesn’t succumb to regressive gender politics. Nothing about the film unilaterally defines either cinematic character in terms of one parent, nor does Weerasethakul rest any blame or judgment on either figure. More generally, it is a film about how the differences in genders belie their human similarities, and about how we construct gender along visual and aural lines.
Still, Syndromes isn’t above keen, complicated observation. Witness, for instance, the subtly different inflections in the “modern”, “masculine” segment, where the same interactions that once signified genuine investment and intimacy in the past now seem functional, businesslike, and opportunistic; the people do not genuinely seem to connect, but only to play out the roles expected of them as modern city folk more invested in their jobs than in human interaction. This, combined with the oppressively punishing whites of the modern dental facility, densely packed with machinery to the point where there is no room left in the facility for emotion, finds Weerasethakul in great pain for the modern age.
His languid, lengthy, still images, in the “past” segment, convey spiritual awakening, calmful rest, and quiet, casual friendship, but the same exact techniques in the “modern” tale approach stagnancy, cryptic depression, and unmoving clinical detachment. What was once glidingly poetic is now coldly barren; where the film’s landscapes once cascaded off the screen, they now box-off the action and suffocate it. The two tales contrasted with one another are as harmonious a study in the disharmony of time as any film you’ll find; it is a showpiece argument for the way technique morphs around context to approach audiences in multitudinous, ambidextrous, prismatic tones.
Still, the film is never critical of the modern era so much as it is painfully observant of its frailty; the people occupying the modern age are not soulless people, but people too busy with the doldrums of busy modern living to always keep track of their soul. Weerasethakul’s obvious empathy for them is never less than fully apparent. For all its abstractions and formal playground expressiveness, for all Weerasethakul does to redefine the very medium of cinema, his film retains a noble, human spirit to rival the great humanist cinematic masters, namely Ozu. He films his characters as if in dioramas, capturing them walking in and out of the frame and exposing the moments of indecision and waiting that characterize the small but essential segments of human life, and he centers on little tragedies of love and loss and joy and heartbreak as characters speak to one another, fail to speak to one another, and approach problems without pre-packaged solutions.
He is a director of space who finds space, both on-screen and off-screen, as a paean to humanity. Above all, Syndromes is one of the most cleansing films ever made, and in an era of increasingly blunt, overwrought productions and noise, noise, and noise clogging up the works of cinema more often than not, it is essential viewing.