Thursday, December 27, 2007

Review: Syndromes and a Century

  • Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Starring Nantarat Sawaddikul, Jaruchai Iamaram, Nu Nimsomboon, Sophon Pukanok, Jenjira Pongpas, Arkanae Cherkam, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Sin Kaewpakpin
  • Reviewed at Bangkok press screening on March 28, 2007; set for limited release in Bangkok on April 5, 2007, but canceled by director over censorship concerns.
  • Rating: 5/5
For a director whose production company is called Kick the Machine, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has the art of making a film down a finely tuned process that includes the following steps:

Have a concept in mind, or general idea of a story to tell.
  • Assemble a cast of first-time actors.
  • Find a location.
  • Tell the story.
  • Repeat.
Like his previous feature film, the Cannes prize-winning Tropical Malady, Apichatpong's latest, Syndromes and a Century is broken into two films, and the effect of this revolutionary storytelling method is no less jarring and thought-provoking than it was in Tropical Malady, which veered wildly off the rails into the dark jungle fantasy.

In Syndromes, it's like a reset button was pushed, and the results are mind-blowing. It took me three days of wandering around, barely able to comprehend what I'd just seen to be able to write about it. By a miracle, I survived the assault and have lived to try and tell the story.

This is Apichatpong's story, a tribute to his parents, who were both physicians. It's a jumbled-up cavalcade of amusing memories and anectdotes, presented in a carnival sideshow-like atmosphere that takes on a positively Felliniesque quality at times. The characters are a delightful bunch: A strong, upright female physician, a handsome orchid expert, a monk who wishes he was a DJ, a singing dentist and an elderly female doctor who keeps a bottle of whisky hidden in a prosthetic leg.
It begins with a sad sack of a male physician, Dr. Nohng (former webmaster Jaruchai Iamaram) being interviewed by a female doctor. She asks him all kinds of weird questions that don't really seem to have anything to do with anything. The lady is Dr. Toey, portrayed by the striking Nantarat Sawaddikul, a first-time actress with a master's in psychology who works as an expressway toll collector. She ought to make a movie about her life someday.

Self-assured and determined, Dr Toey is observed in her work at a rural Thai hospital. She is dogged by Toa (graphic designer Nu Nimsomboon), a young puppy of a man who is so in love with her, yet trembles when she speaks to him. As he tries to pour his heart out to her, she tells him of when she courted Noom, a dashing orchid expert (celebrity hair stylist Sophon Pukanok). That would intimidate the strongest of men. She tends to an elderly monk, who gives her an herbal remedy. As an aside to the story, a young monk (Kick the Machine regular Sakda Kaewbuadee) who wishes he was a DJ develops an odd friendship with a luk-thung singing dentist (jewellery designer Arkanae Cherkam). These are people who seem so real, they can't possibly made up. And indeed, the singing dentist character was inspired by a real person, Apichatpong has said.

Dr Toey then drinks the monk's herbal tea, and the scene resets: The same sad-sack male internist, the same strange, non-sequitir questions by the female doctor, the same old monk with the same maladies, except it is taking place in a modern Bangkok hospital. This part is more meditative, yet crazed as it focuses on the male Dr Nohng as he goes through his rounds.

Eventually, he finds his way into a basement ward reserved for military veterans and their dependants, where a teenage guy is swatting a tennis ball against a steel door, making a lot of racket with his racket. He passes through a machine shop where prosthetic limbs are being made and tested by patients, and then winds up in a file room, with pile of plastic limbs in the corner. Here he encounters a pair of elderly women doctors, one of whom retrieves a fifth of whisky from the hollow of one of the legs and proceeds to "get a little tipsy".

The camera hones in on a machine-shop exhaust vent, with smoke flowing into the round, dark opening. I'm not sure what to make of it, but the frame holds on this picture for a good long while.

Make of it what you can, but have fun in the process.

(Note: This review was originally published in Nation Weekend on April 6, 2007, but I never got around to posting it on the blog until now.)

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