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.