When Syndromes and a Century, the fifth feature by art-house wunderkind Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was granted a limited release in his native Thailand following a battle between the filmmaker and the local censorship board, the Bangkok audience viewed a version which has become known as the ‘exclusive Thailand edition’ as six contentious scenes were either cut entirely, or featured ‘scratched’ images, or were lacking in sound. The offending scenes included a doctor passionately kissing his girlfriend, a Buddhist monk playing a guitar, two monks playing with a radio-controlled flying saucer and another doctor drinking whiskey from a bottle craftily concealed in prosthetic leg. According to the Thai censorship board, these scenes displayed, ‘inappropriate conduct’, with this reactionary response prompting Weerasethakul and other similarly infuriated Thai filmmakers to form the Free Thai Cinema Movement as a means of campaigning against such restrictions on their representations of contemporary Thai culture. However, to Western audiences, these scenes do not seem to document any moral lapses in Thai society, but instead serve as further examples of Weerasethakul’s ability to offer entirely unexpected moments of human connection within the context of his conceptual frameworks. Weerasethakul has stated that Syndromes and a Century is primarily concerned with memory, and how memory can intertwine with the events of the present. Taking his recollections of his parents – who met whilst working at a rural hospital in Khon Kaen – as his starting point, the director proceeds to interweave an account of their courtship with characters from his daily life, such as a Buddhist monk and his dentist. Weerasethakul ultimately utilises these elements to collectively consider the significance of space and landscape alongside the repetitious nature of human experience. As such, it is hard to see how the Thai censorship board could consider Syndromes and a Century to fall into a category of films that, ‘undermine or disrupt social order and moral decency, or that might impact national security or the pride of the nation.’
Like the director’s earlier film Tropical Malady (2004) – which followed the gay romance between a soldier on leave and a countryman, only to effectively begin again with the solider hunting an elusive tiger ghost spirit in a fairy-tale forest – the narrative of Syndromes and a Century is clearly divided into two parts. Possibly set in the recent past, the first part takes place in and around a rural hospital where Toey, a female doctor, interviews the army-trained Dr. Nohng for a surgeon’s position. After treating an elderly monk who suffers from aches and pains and has strange dreams about chickens, Toey is approached by Dr. Toa, a young man who professes his love for her. This leads Toey to reminisce about her own unrequited attraction to a charming orchid grower whom she met some years earlier, only to discover that he was in love with another woman. This section also observes the burgeoning friendship between a male dentist and a Buddhist monk; before following the spiritual path, the monk had dreamed of becoming a DJ due to his love of Western pop music, while the dentist moonlights as a country singer. The second part takes place either in the present or the near future, with the rural locale being replaced by a city hospital but some of the situations and dialogues of the earlier section are reprised. Toey and Toa appear again, but this part largely revolves around Nohng and his relationship with his girlfriend Joy, who has just been assigned a post in a new facility.
Syndromes and a Century is very much a film of contrasts; past and present, rural and urban, science and religion, unrequited love and erotic pleasure. This is most evident in the aesthetic presentation of the two parts; the first plays as a cinematic love letter to the natural splendour of the Thai countryside, while the second is largely confined to a sterile urban facility. In an early scene, Toey leads Nohng from the interview room to take him on a tour of the hospital, only for the camera to leave the characters to instead focus on the shrubbery that surrounds the hospital. The dialogue between Toey and her new colleague continues while Weerasethakul contemplates the enduring beauty of rural space and how it is unaffected by the events of the present, with chatter being heard from outside the frame, but becoming increasingly inconsequential. This shift from character to environment is reprised in the penultimate scene, as Weerasethakul’s usually static camera prowls the empty basement of the city hospital in a manner reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s approach to shooting the haunted corridors of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). This is perhaps the director’s most self-conscious exploration of space to date, as his camera probes the uninviting basement whilst unnerving the audience with hissing steam and industrial noise, eventually focussing on a black intake vent that is sucking in smoke from the room below. If these two shots (natural space and man-made space) represent visions of Heaven and Hell within the mortal realm, then the final scene, which does not feature any of the principal characters, suggests some form of compromise as urbanites engage in an exercise routine in a city park, their physical celebration of life conducted in time to an upbeat electro-pop song.
Despite the director’s naturalistic tendencies, there is some flirtation with cine-literacy to be found in the second part of Syndromes and a Century, with Weerasethakul tentatively experimenting with the science-fiction genre. Tight framing and dense sound design suggest the futurism of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as the warmth of the first section is diluted by harsh fluorescent lighting, while compressed images suggest that this urban facility is less likely to encourage human interaction than its rural equivalent, which feels more like a commune than a hospital. Ultimately, any attempt to dissect Weerasethakul’s technique risks missing the anecdotal pleasures inherent in his work. In a sublime musical sequence, the dentist performs a traditional Thai folk song at an outdoor concert before graciously allowing his guitar player an extended solo. This scene could hold the key to unlocking the great philosophy which many admirers believe to lie within the director’s oeuvre, or it could simply be a beautiful digression. Regardless of meaning, Syndromes and a Century finds a unique filmmaker evolving at his own unhurried pace and, in keeping with his love of contrasts, achieving a meditative quality that is as approachable as it is enigmatic. In a 2007 Bangkok Post article, Weeresathakul stated, ‘I, as a filmmaker, treat my works as I do my own sons or daughters. I don’t care if people are fond of them or despise them, as long as I created them with my best intentions and efforts. If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reason, let them be free. There is no reason to mutilate them in fear of the system. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.’ The fact that Weerasethakul’s following feature – the Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – was passed uncut for a limited release in Bangkok shows that the director is gradually winning his battle against censorship with typically quiet dignity.
For further reading on Weerasethakul and Syndromes and a Century, check out my interview with the director on Electric Sheep here and an examination of the last ten minutes of the film on the Visual Culture blog here.