Reviews of Syndromes and a Century
Displaying all 7 reviews
Structured and poised. Natural and meditative. The move from the first to the second half is striking and the change in setting and towards a more intimate and fluid camera was extremely satisfying.
Weerasethaku has a very interesting sensibility – especially in terms of pacing and structure. I particular was impressed by the relaxed and seamless characters within the film. I look forward to seeing more of his work this summer. I appreciate his aesthetic – it feels pure and without compromise. This is gentle movie making.
The first half of this film is truly magical and playfully intoxicating. Weerasethakul manages to create epic change halfway through this film with a technologically updated environment and a new context, and with an overall darker tone. I definitely prefer the first half, as the second half seems to get a bit serious, but the other side of that is it may become more ponderous. Either way, that crackle of an ending bursts through in a silly refrain.
Part I: Gentle Intoxication, I’d say. There is an all-renewing gentleness to the characters in this beginning half. Perhaps it is their Buddhist context, but whatever causes them to act kindly is infectiously jubilant. Groups of people in this film are comfortable being “part of the crowd”: sharing in the moment with others. For instance, when the elder Buddhist monk wearing the saffron robe talks with the main female doctor, the two monks seated to the left of him wait in a well-meaning, ultimately playful nervousness. They exude such stillness that it makes me desire to live in that type of culture! The two young men have a warmth can be seen in their eyes which hold no judgement, and in their sweet smiles at the humor of the situation at hand: the kind female doctor deals with an elder monk, who is imaginative and playfully unwieldy. Were these spectators American, I would suspect I would see them fidgeting and making restless noise to break the serene silence created by the open office.
The affable aura does not stop. Everything buzzes and whispers of love and life. The environment and the people within it harmoniously exist in gentle accord. Another achingly pretty scene is the dentist scene. The patient is the same young monk who waited in the doctor’s office. After the dentist reveals he likes to sing ‘Thai country’ music, he beings to sing while he works on the patient’s teeth. The patient, confused when the doctor stops everything and sings for a long pause, assumes a default indignation at the dentist who will not operate on him, but who instead continues to sing softly. All this occurring while the outdoor sounds of birds and the breeze support the visuals by reinforcing the importance of nature to the setting.
Later on within the first section, there’s a brief concert where the dentist sings, a guitarist plays a solo, and children play ball under an illuminated sky. In the background, a peaceful Buddha gazes toward the camera. I could feel the balmy sweetness of the nighttime air. This section of part 1—the night scene—felt like all the best parts of my family vacations combined into one intoxicatingly dreamy dose. All feels calm, whole, and collected.
Part II: In the first scene, the interview is the same, except this time the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, makes the decision to show it almost completely from the woman’s point of view, whereas the primary focus was on the interviewee before. Plus, we are now in a large high-rise hospital complex, away from the ground, out of which only the concrete from other buildings can be seen. When the same female doctor asks the man what he thinks DDT means this time around, he gives the same response, “Destroy Dirty Things”. There is a crippling void in the woman’s complete lack of response; she’s not amused anymore. Her face reveals a new boredom for having to listen to the man’s absurd response. So, immediately, the second half feels different. And it does play out vacuously, with a sad, stiff, and dead soul, if only because the first half was by comparison so incredibly benevolent. The new mood here is evidenced by the nettled look on the dentist’s (same dentist, different version of himself though) face when he is waiting for his nurse to prepare the proper tools, when, less than 30 minutes ago, this same doctor was singing in the breeziest lull without a care in the world. What changed? The obvious answer is the environment. Nature is all but absent.
An exception to shift in mood to more negative occurs in the second half in the scene where the older woman doctor produces a liquor bottle and they drink together. In fact, the entire basement sequence, including the conversation between the newly hired doctor and the patient with the blood poisoning, and the drinking within the room itself, feels warm, but tentatively. The mood is difficult to accurately describe: it feels nice, but some uncertainly remains which causes unease.
Philosophically speaking, maybe the humans are not to blame. They are merely making the most out of their “given environment”. Still, the director seems intent to communicate that the sheer amount of manmade items in the second half is responsible for (at least some of) the mess. For example, there is a discordant note signaling mystery and fear in the shot where the camera circles the statue of a man, presumably the deceased founder of the company, which seems to suggest a the shot is something other than celebratory, despite the low camera angle. Even the statue of Buddha—clearly the identical one used in the first half—is filmed much further away and now stands aloof to a towering parking complex, like a lost traveller. Illustrating the extent to which the people have now distanced themselves from nature, the male doctor from the first half now says to his girlfriend, “do not tempt me with nature,” as if something as ubiquitous and essential as nature is but a ploy, a device to be used. By way of memory, a solution is offered by the director AW: we need nature. But even that message just scratches the surface of the philosophical content that is charged up within the film. One thing is certain: when I compared the second half to the first, I ultimately wanted the mood, rhythm, and life of the first to return.
Kicker: Positioned in the film in a spot where traditionally the climax of the film is, one of the final scenes takes place in the interior of a basement prosthetic room. In this shot, swirling smog is supported excellently by a soundtrack to create a truly concentrated fear. As the camera pans and dollies simultaneously, a tube that appears not much wider than a human leg is cropped into the frame, resulting in a close-up of the tube’s opening. After carefully displaying all of the swirling steam under the light fixtures above, AW powerfully moves our eye to fixate on this void. Then the tube inhales. It begins to suck. It sucks in all of the steam of the room. It sucks slowly at first, but acquires increasing force as a growing soundtrack cues our emotions: the soundtrack begins to etch messily around horrifying images: a discordant series of notes serves as the base upon which there are cars stopping, there are keys being jut into doors, all harsh. All of the sounds of the building are coming into focus in a surreal cumulation of sound, and finally, ghastly screams coated in sonic manipulation and distortion, rising to a fever, add to the mix. All of the silent horrors written on the faces of those who work in the high-rise and in buildings elsewhere are finally getting a manual release by the director himself. Suck in. LOUD. Black. Fade out. FADE IN to outdoors and to two young lovers in nature. And just like the drugged lull following a sexual climax, the yelling and screaming is replaced with the blissful twiddle of birds.
The coda at the end is goofy indeed. It begins as the city’s inhabitants exercise in a park in the city. The final shot shows a large group of Thailand people of all ages facing a stage on which the instructor leads a workout using full motion of the arms and legs. The last shot (cue geeky music!) drives home just how absurd people will get (it did look fun, though) in the modern world for the opportunity to be rejoined with nature. NOTE: After seeing ‘Tropical Malady’, I realize a similar scene exists in that film too. Perhaps the group exercise with electro-pop music is more typical than I originally thought in Thailand culture.
Syndromes and a Century is pretty much a brilliant film. I love the relentless kindness of the first half, and the ponderous, slightly menacing touch added to the second half. Both sides of the whole support it in different ways. The coda at the end helps lift the film up after the heavier natural progression of the second half.
Syndromes and a Century uses slow pacing, but to a much different effect than Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr: it lacks the eyes-wide, innocent sense of wonder of the former and the meticulously designed horror of the latter. It is peacefully slow, with a tinge of surreality.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
This made several best of the decades list, and it’s not a bad pick, imo. TThe film is broken into two sections, both taking place in a hospital. The first section focuses on a female doctor. We see her treating various patients, and we learn that another doctor(?) is in love with her. There is also a side story with a monk and a dentist. The second section focuses on a male doctor, a man who has just been hired. We see him doing his job; we briefly see him interact with his girlfriend…while typing this I realize that the plot won’t be very interesting to read, but the film is not about plot or even story, but about ideas—which the film explores in creative ways. I’ll got into that in the next section. (To some extent, reading my interpretation of the film won’t spoil the film, per se—except if you want to figure it out for yourself.)
This is a film that relies heavily on a viewer interpretation, and I must note that my interest and knowledge of community and urban planning has greatly informed my personal interpretation of the film. I have no idea how valid this interpretation is, but it does seem to fit with the film.
With that, let me start with a definition of syndrome, which also helped me interpret the film:
1.Pathology, Psychiatry. a group of symptoms that together are characteristic of a specific disorder, disease, or the like.
2. a group of related or coincident things, events, actions, etc.
3. the pattern of symptoms that characterize or indicate a particular social condition.
4. a predictable, characteristic pattern of behavior, action, etc., that tends to occur under certain circumstances: the retirement syndrome of endless golf and bridge games; the feast-or-famine syndrome of big business.
As I mentioned above, Weerasethakul divides the film into two sections. The first section is a depiction of what I would call the traditional syndrome. Nature and religion are more present and valued in this syndrome; people seem to have more personal and humane interactions with each other. The physical environment and the people seems more alive, more human. The second half of the film depicts what I would call the modern syndrome. In this syndrome people don’t value religion so much, and nature is largely absent. Interactions between people are also formal and even lacking in humanity. The physical environment is sterile and dead, which carries over to the people.
This explains the “syndrome” part of the title. I understand the “century” part of the title this way: The characters and situations from the first part of the film reoccur in the second part of the film, but there are clear differences—the situations don’t play out in the same way; characters are given different treatment. For example, the interview of the Buddhist monk by a doctor occurs in both sections, but the nature of the conversation is very different. I understand the first half of the film to have taken place earlier in the 20th century, while the second half of the film takes place in the later portion—i.e. a century goes by between the two syndromes. I understand the characters in the second half of the film to be “reincarnated” in the second syndrome. Btw, near the beginning of the film, there’s a conversation between the female doctor and I believe another doctor. They’re off camera, and we see a field. At one point, one of the actors makes a mistake. They start commenting on repeating the scene and the number of takes they already made. This is clearly the actors speaking out of character, but Weerasethakul leaves it in, I believe, to indicate the repeating nature of the film.
Let me get back to both syndromes. There are several themes/issues that both syndromes deal with, albeit in significantly different ways, which is part of the point of the film. Here are some of the themes/issues—and I’ll try to comment on each of them: people and interpersonal relationships; romance; religion; community; and nature and the physical environment:
People and interpersonal relationship:
In the traditional syndrome, the relationships are more personal, informal and humane. For example, the Monk’s teeth cleaning scene provides a start contrast. In the traditional syndrome, both the Monk and Dentist are speaking freely with each other. The Dentist even breaks out into song and the Monk shares some rather personal details about his past.
On the other hand, in the modern syndrome, the two characters don’t say anything to each other.
I also think that the different social classes seem to interact more frequently and maybe in a more personal way in the first section.The above examples illustrates that. There’s also a scene where the female doctor scolds what appears to be a worker at the hospital about paying her the money he owes her. While the scene may place the traditional syndrome in a negative light, I saw it as a positive one. It demonstrates that the professionals actually have contact with the lower classes—and that the interactions are somewhat personal. After all, the worker could ask her to borrow money, and she actually lent him money.
Also, consider the way individuals treat disabled people in the two sections. In the first half, the treatment is much more humane and the characters are individuals. For example, in the first section, the orchid grower’s sister has a long and friendly conversation with the female doctor. In the second half, she appears, but only briefly—walking into the hall of a basement. That basement is where the disabled people go, a place where they seem to be forgotten.
In short, the interactions in the first section are more humane, personal and even substantive, while opposite is true in the second section.
In the first section, love is expressed in a passionate way. The man who loves the doctor loves her to the point of being in agony. That’s starkly contrasted in the second section, particularly with the scene between the doctor and his girlfriend. Their conversation involves their career and moving to a “nicer” (she shows him pictures of some kind of industrial plant as an example of the attractiveness of the place) community. The couple kiss, but it comes across as passionless, cold and even awkward; even more awkward is their reaction to the man’s erection. It’s as if the filmmaker is saying that their relationship is purely materialistic—both in economic sense as well as the romantic one. Then there’s a shot of them leaving the office separately and enter what appears to be another room—and my sense was that they went there to have sex.
There are no physical expressions of romance in the first half, but the romance is much more passionate. Even the female doctor’s interaction with the orchid grower seems more alive and full of feeling, even if it turns out to be purely platonic.
Religion is respected and valued in the first section and has no place in the second half. The doctor’s first reaction the Monk in the first half is respectful. In the second half, the doctor treats the Monk condescendingly and the Monk chides him for it. Indeed, that is the malady the Monk sees in the second doctor, while he notices a physical problem with the first doctor. There’s also talk of reincarnation in the first half and one of the hospital workers is afraid of being in the presence of Monks. In the second half, there is little mention of religion, and when there is a bit of traditional medicine, the depiction is not very positive. (I’m thinking of the scene where the older female doctor tries to send power to the young man’s chakra’s. At the end of the scene, the other older female doctor is staring into the camera as the camera pans back. I’m not sure what that signifies—maybe it’s a way of the traditionalist chiding modern technology and its intrusiveness?) Finally, there are statues made of prominent political or business leaders, which seem to replace statues of the buddha.
In the first half of the film, the community seems more alive and vibrant. We see people playing sports together; at the hospital we see people hanging out somewhere in the back, someone is playing a guitar; at an evening event, a real person is singing and playing an instrument; there is a lively open market.
There is very little community interactions in the second half of the film. Instead, there’s a sense that people are isolated. Even in the closing scene of people exercising together doesn’t feel very personal or filled with strong interpersonal connections: the people are essentially doing things by themselves—note, the music is canned and mechanical sounding, too. Contrast that with the people playing the “volleyball” like game and the concert with the live singer (who also happens to be a the dentist) in the first half of the film.
Nature and the physical environment:
In the first half of the film, nature is ever present. And the built environment feels more more alive and vibrant. In the second half of the film, the hospital seems cold and sterile. People seem isolated and alone. There’s a scene of the disabled person playing handball in the basement hallway. Something that sis solitary, not to mention a bit crazy.
There many other examples (and different interpretations), so the list above isn’t exhaustive.
There are other scenes that are important, but I didn’t address. Most importantly, there’s a rather long scene of a vacuum-like device sucking up the dust from what appears to be expansion of one of the hospital wings. The camera moves close to the nozzle as the we see the dust particles getting sucked in. My take: it’s progress in action sucking everything—people, the country, etc.—along with it, for better or worse.
One last word. I’m not sure what the filmmaker’s attitude is, but my own (probably biased take) is that the film has a far more positive outlook on the “traditional syndrome” so much so that we can say the film is at least a cautious critique of modernization.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Such a beautiful, meditative, funny, weird experience, all rolled into one. One of the few films I’ve seen that accurately reproduces the feeling of dreaming. Actually, it’s probably the ONLY one that I can think of. The dreamstate is so hard to do in film, and I feel like usually it ends up more heavyhanded than it does here (see Bergman). I found myself not caring one bit what any of the events meant, because it made sense in a broader way, in terms of how they fit in to the mood of the film. For such an artistic masterpiece, it is uncharacteristically light and often laugh out loud funny. But also, especially towards the end, it can get creepy and uncomfortable as well. So so well done. The musical choices were perfect too. The visuals were to die for.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
To date, this is my first and only exposure to Weerasethakul. I’m not sure that his work is easily appreciated by the uninitiated. I think my experience also suffered from the fact that the film programme summary that enticed me to go see this film misrepresented it quite a bit. I enjoyed the first half — the dreamy, languid pacing, like poking through random memories. The latter half didn’t work as well for me. I’m not sure why but it pulled me out of the dreaminess and left me bored.
- Currently 3.0/5 Stars.
And one of the funniest endings to any film I have ever seen.
A wonderful film that deserves six stars out of five. Not quite as minimalist as HHH, and with a much clearer sense of humor. I was struck by how many shots of windows there are, and how nearly every shot in the entire first half contains greenery of some kind (starkly contrasted with the second half).
If I had a meaningful top ten list, this would be in it.
Now can someone please show me how his name is pronounced phonetically?
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Since his name is so long, I will just refer to him by his nickname, Joe. This, I thought, was Joe’s most accessible and expansive films to date, and it was a bit disheartening to encounter other people at the LA Film Fest who said they didn’t get it. I guess it was because they were expecting that in order to like a movie, you must understand it. Whatever happened to just feeling? The film’s very unconventional payoff (not telling what it is) is probably the barometer: if it exhilarates you, then you have been affected by this film, if it doesn’t, then you’ve probably been bored or not paying attention the past two hours. I’ve never felt that David Lynch films had to make sense, and the same goes for this film. It is a film of two halves that mirror each other, both full of nonsequiturs and unfinished stories. And even with the formal experimentation at play, Joe still has very poignant moments that the characters share with each other, it is about love, after all. And the singing dentist is just charming. All in all it’s really a film about memory, the two halves of the film could possibly be the memories of his mother and his father, respectively. And more importantly, it’s how you remember the film.