The Humanists: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006)


by Colin Marshall

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the foremost aesthetic craftsman of his generation. (If one intends to write up the work of so bold a filmmaker, one must write boldly. If one intends to write boldly, one must open boldly. So there it is.) His work has attracted a reputation as “puzzling”, “inscrutable”, “difficult”, even “impossible”. The man himself — who, in syllabically-challenged non-Thai company, simply goes by “Joe” — professes bewilderment as to why his pictures create bewilderment. Going by his interviews, talks and commentaries, he seems to consider himself a teller of simple stories: a soldier-bumpkin romance, the pursuit of a shape-shifting tiger spirit, a tentative couple's day retreat to the jungle. But he's also been heard to lament how little time feature films allow to properly tell these tales, un-epic as they may be. Forgive this descent into what may come off as fetishistic mythologizing of The Artist, but it's difficult not to imagine that Weerasethakul, with his capacity to draw rich waves of nuance and intrigue from ostensibly hyper-mundane moments, sees the world differently.

Syndromes and a Century works with plot lines no more complex than those of its predecessors, though it threads them together in a striking fashion. That sentence no doubt rings an alarm bell in the heads of pre-existing Weerasethakul fans — “plot” isn't a useful term in the discussion of his major films — but I hesitate to exile it, or, worse, to replace it with the antonym “plotless”. Deem a movie plotless and you call to mind the standard negative art-house stereotype: lazy composition, undisciplined execution, all-pervading aimlessness. If Weerasethakul cranked out that sort of thing, we'd have no problem, but view any of his projects and it's clear that they must have been made with the precise opposite of laziness, aimlessness and a lack of discipline. That they are they way they are — and it's a highly distinctive way indeed — is no accident, no happy unintended byproduct of slapdash production.

The film came into being as one of those creative efforts that, like all worthwhile creative efforts, started as one thing but swerved in an unexpected evolutionary direction. Originally thinking of shooting a tribute to his doctor parents' lives at the time of their courtship, he wound up hybridizing that idea with those he dreamed up after being commissioned by Vienna's New Crowned Hope festival to create a picture imbued with the spirit of Mozart to celebrate the composer's 250th birthday. The result isn't a true-to-life parental narrative, and even less is it a paean to Mozart; it's… well, it's a lot of things.

The action begins in a rural medical clinic, somewhere in an indistinct, imaginary past. A doctor, somehow attractive in her plainness, attempts to diagnose a cranky monk's malaise. Having only just interviewed a new hire, she then finds herself romantically pursued by him. She deflects his proposals and protestations with an incomplete anecdote about her near-fling with an orchid dealer. A dentist with a flourishing side career singing Thai country music, meanwhile, gives another monk a pro bono checkup. The monk laments the DJ career than his compulsion to devote himself to poverty, prayer and saffron robes denied him. The dentist presents the monk with his latest album of love songs, but only after probing the issue of whether the holy man is or is not the reincarnation of his long-dead brother.

Suddenly, the movie appears to reboot, shifting from the half-wooden, greenery-engulfed backwoods hospital to a spic-and-span urban operation, all state-of-the-art gear and varying shades of white. The female doctor remains in the picture, now consumed with ennui. The lovestruck former military doctor also returns, though he brings with him a high-class, high-powered, demanding fiancée who eclipses the object of his previous iteration's desire. The second half comes to focus more on the young man, following him as he attends to such typical medical duties as reluctantly downing a few surreptitious shots in the basement with his middle-aged colleagues. He chats with a young fellow getting his life back on track after a bout of carbon monoxide poisoning. A mist spreads through the building. A jovial outdoor aerobics session — something of a Weerasethakul leitmotif — closes the movie.

I've left nearly as many events out of the summary as I've included. Not that it matters; neither Syndromes and a Century nor its close relatives in its maker's canon are particularly dependent on their events. The event — or, to lay down a tacky bit of screenwriting lingo, the “plot point” — is not the fundamental unit of these films. Hence, presumably, the accusations of plotlessness, though it's much more accurate to say that plot simply isn't the main material of which the picture is made. But what is it made of? The fabric is certainly an aesthetic one, but it's woven by both character and setting, or the generative interaction between the two.

When Weerasethakul, in the bisected story's first segment, drops the evasive country doctor and her aggressive would-be suitor in their lush, half-organic, half-technological, subtly decayed setting, he's done half the job already. His real art comes in taking these individuals' interactions in this place and laying them bare for the audience's contemplation. There are infinitely many ways to handle a man pleading with a woman to marry him as they stroll across disused basketball courts, past cross-legged statues and under the shade of countless unbelievably broad and green leaves. Weerasethakul sees, and exposes, the most aesthetically and emotionally resonant subcomponents. He cracks open the humanity of his setups like, to employ a ridiculous metaphor, the sweet tropical fruit of his homeland.

How does he do it? Weerasethakul is often lumped into the rogues' gallery of “experimental” filmmaking, but it seems to me that he lacks, in a good way, a quality shared by the rest of the bunch. Designed to raise questions, experimental film raises one above all others: what about the seduction of the audience? A filmmaker may freely choose to devote no effort to drawing viewers in via an at least reasonably pleasurable path, but they can rest assured that if they don't, a thousand others stand ready to do it instead. So adept is Weerasethakul at audience seduction that he out-seduces even the most commercial directors; his films transcend appeal and attain irresistibility. Thousands of viewer bathroom breaks, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have been forestalled in the name of remaining in an audiovisual environment Weerasethakul has created for just one minute longer; the minute becomes minutes, the minutes hours.

Weerasethakul is a student of the moment. As far out on the intentional assumption limb as this goes, he seems to examine not moments during their actual occurrence, but moments as memories subject to the distillation process that accompanies (or defines) the act of remembering. He brings these memories, these concentrated feelings and sense impressions, to the screen; he brings them, almost without exception, unadulterated. His films aim straight for the aesthetic center of the viewer's brain and don't let up. To say his work evokes certain moods, atmospheres and emotions badly understates the case; it has the audience all but mainline them. Two men leaning on a wooden railing and talking in the evening, slow panning gazes across statues, steam emerging from a pipe: the moments Weerasethakul internalizes and reconstitutes are rarely unusual on their faces, but he presents them so richly that I suspect they could remain onscreen for an arbitrarily long time and nevertheless remain entrancing. I once had a conversation with a well-known film writer who adroitly described a valuable (and rare) skill as as “allowing time for the moment to flower”. Weerasethakul has this skill to spare, and knows it.

All of this exquisite aesthetic technique and precision tone control would, of course, be for naught if employed in the service of cliché, sappiness, moralizing or some poisonous combination of the preceding. Weerasethakul's sensiblity is, blessedly, unified; just as his prime concern with sound and image appears to be opening up the material to all possibilities of human contemplation, his attitude toward the subject matter remains similarly unobtrusive. The juxtaposition of Syndromes and a Century's slightly cheerier bucolic, nostalgic first half with its eerier, antiseptic second half might suggest a flimsy “Country Mouse, City Mouse”-style instructional fable, but the picture takes a higher road, depicting the things it depicts for what they are rather than for where they sit in some authorial normative hierarchy.

Such openness, while by all means a breath of wonderfully fresh cinematic air, nevertheless creates problems, the most visible of which is the intense friction of garden-variety filmgoing expectations grinding against Weerasethakul's ambiguity. For every Joe-lover singing the filmmaker's praises, there are a dozen detractors fulminating with implausible bitterness about the two hours of which they've allegedly been robbed. No matter how much it's forced, approaching Syndromes and a Century or its predecessors in the same way as one would a standard three-act, beginning-middle-end, “character arc”-based product of a Robert McKee workshop isn't going to work. But no more suitable is the slowly nodding, arms-folded, art-as-serious-business stance of the habitual anti-mainstream filmgoer. What's critical to remember, and what's too often forgotten, is that Weerasethakul's movies are, if not comedies, then at least comedic, infused with a serene lightheartedness that shouldn't be denied. As masterfully crafted as it is, it's an impoverished appreciation that takes his work solely as capital-A Art. With how much seriousness, after all, can one possibly interpret a scene of Buddhist monks playing with a remote-controlled flying saucer? Admittedly, the answer, at least for the Thai censors, turns out to have been “very seriously”. But everyone else should take it on its own terms.

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