Syndromes and a Century
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's determination to tell an aspect of his parents' love affair: "Syndromes and a Century is a story inspired by the lives of Weerasethakul's parents in the years before they fell in love" (IndieWire) They were doctors working in Thailand in the sixties. But this potentially simple tale is complicated by two temporalities and a number of repetitions that take place between them. The first version of events is perhaps in the 1960s, perhaps in the 1970s, in a rural hospital; the second version in a modern, city hospital in the present. Weerasethakul was born in 1970, so whatever version of his parents' story he tells, chronological accuracy isn't part of it if the film is 70s set. A further complication rests on the director's ongoing interest in reincarnation. "I believe in the transmigration of souls between humans, plants, animals, and ghosts...A new layer of (simulated) memory is augmented in the audience's experience. In this regard, filmmaking is like creating synthetic past lives. I am interested in exploring the innards of this time machine." Weerasethakul also says, in the same interview, "there might be some mysterious forces waiting to be revealed just as certain things that used to be called black magic have been shown to be scientific facts. For me, filmmaking remains a source all of whose energy we haven't properly utilised. (Spirituality and Practise) Grounding the film in his parents' life won't much help when film is a medium of elusive memory and where the director is interested in souls that needn't occupy just one body. There is also the pesky temporality.
Not only does the film abruptly jump into the second temporality, it uses repetitions that add to the disconcertion. At the beginning of both the first and second stories, the situation is similar and the dialogue in some instances the same. In the first, we have a young doctor, Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) interviewing another doctor, Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram Nantarat Sawaddikul) over a new position. She asks him various questions and we hear some of the same questions in the second section when once again a young female doctor interviews another young male doctor. That in both instances they are played by the same actors adds to the problem but then we might ask what is the problem, or is Weerasethakul merely playing clever? "In terms of Buddhism and quantum physics, I don't think that they are particular systems of knowledge that the audience must learn in order to understand Uncle Boonmee and other films of mine. They relate to cinema in general and life in general. I don't view Buddhism as a set of beliefs or a religion." Weerasethakul reckons too, that "for me, it's a way of life. So cinema, no matter what it is about, can be Buddhist this way. It's not about "Buddhist films," but certain films can evoke something Buddhist." (Film Quarterly)
What we want to explore is the film's interest in trying to find an intelligence that has little to do with cinematic cleverness and how successful we might find the attempt. Cleverness in film became almost a millennial trope: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Nine Queens, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction and numerous other films from the mid-to-late-90s and into the 2000s were constantly finding ways to wrongfoot the viewer's expectations as they yanked the narrative rug from under our feet. Whether it turned out to be someone who was one person instead of two (Fight Club), a person already dead (The Sixth Sense), or someone telling the most fabricated of fibs (The Usual Suspects), the films were trickster works based on getting one over the audience. In contrast, Weerasethakul wishes to get one 'under the audience' if we accept that what interests him is how film can access the unconscious and the yet undetermined. "Cinema can be a phantom in this sense: because it's something that you really need to dream. Cinema is a vehicle we produce for ourselves and as part of us. It's like an extension of our soul that manifests itself. Concerning new technology, the soul is changing and I don't think it's naturally good or bad...It's just changing and we need to pay attention to how it influences cinema." (Film Quarterly) If Pulp Fiction at the beginning shows a diner robbery from the perspective of the young couple about to rob it, and at the end shows it too from an assassin, Jules's position, then this play with point of view emphasises the film's cleverness as we get to see an event surprisingly focalised. By playing with time, by moving from one character to another, and then folding the story back on itself so that one character becomes peripheral in another character's story and only central to their own, the film shows how easy it is for cinema to shift our interest, our concerns, and our sympathy across a work rather than just focus on a particular hero. But this doesn't seem to be what Weerasethakul wants to do, as though he sees that the identificatory relationship with characters, however dispersed, still contains within it a too-rational position that allows us to work out and work through a film's story. The clever viewer is the one who sees it coming: who knows that the diner Jules is in at the end will turn out to be the same one where the robbery will be committed. Narrative coordinates have been rearranged but they haven't been displaced. One may even wonder if cinema's achievement has often resided in its ability to create, out of a very complex array of information, a coherent picture of reality that viewers rarely fail to understand.
If we look at several of these elements (the split between the actor and the character/the shot choices that can make us aware of different spatial organisations without confusing us/the atemporality of film that always potentially leaves us in the present), we can understand perhaps not the 'meaning' of Syndromes and a Century but an aspect of its purpose, and a purpose that suggests intelligence rather than cleverness, even if we might finally regard the work as a failure. Fiction films have both characters and actors as documentaries do not, and while this is the same as in theatre, fiction film offers a double-displacement, while documentary and theatre offer only one. In documentary, the subject is singular (they aren't playing anybody else) but they are split between the past of the filming and the present of the viewing. A documentary like Pennebaker's Don't Look Back shows us a young Dylan but watching it now we can say Dylan is young (in the film), and was young (in the viewing). In watching a theatre performance, we have a single split again, but not through time but through the difference between character and actor. However, fiction film offers a double-displacement as we have an actor playing a character who is in the past of the filming and the present of the viewing. Yet most of the time this causes us few problems even if potentially it could generate many. Couldn't we find it absurd that an actor is playing a character who is acting the part out in a sphere of existence that we were absent at and are now present to, especially as they are now absent altogether? How often when we watch an 'old' film are we also watching the dead? Few watching Rear Window or Gone with the Wind are likely to say as they sit in their seats that is what they are about to watch, but that is exactly what they will be watching if they go to the cinema or stream a classic work. It is not only the boy in The Sixth Sense who can say: "I see dead people."
That these aren't generally perceived as problems doesn't mean that a filmmaker needn't make them so, and we can think of numerous films that have in one form or another problemitised the gap between the actor and the character; the living and the dead. In That Obscure Object of Desire, two different actresses play the one role. Maria Schneider was originally lined up for the part but in the end Luis Bunuel opted for two actresses, with both Angelina Molina and Carole Bouquet playing the part of Conchita. This is perhaps ironic because in The Passenger, Schneider potentially played two roles in the one film. We see her briefly in a scene set in London, and later she has a major role when the film shifts to Barcelona, but is this the same person or someone else altogether? No mention is made of her appearance in London to allow us to say it is her, or someone who just so happened to look like her even if we are in no doubt both roles (if they are two roles) were played by Schneider. Of course in Dr Strangelove, Peter Sellers played three, but all of them were distinct and what we witness is Sellers' comic genius, playing three very different characters within the one story, and thus it needn't cause us any confusion. We are in no doubt this is Sellers playing three distinct people. In Deadringers and The Social Network, Jeremy Irons and Armie Hammer, play twins, and thus one actor plays two characters. In Ulysses's Gaze, Maia Morgenstern plays four roles. In some of these films the play with casting causes perceptual problems (That Obscure Object of Desire, Ulysses' Gaze), in others it is a witty conceit (Dr Strangelove) and still others a pragmatic decision (Deadringers; The Social Network). But all of them play on the sub-division between character and actor. If the subject weren't split, none of these possibilities would be available.
Increasingly, thanks to CGI development, the dead are no longer quite so dead. This can take an extreme form where an actor many years gone can be fully resurrected, as Peter Cushing was for Star Wars: Rogue One. In Iron Cross, Roy Schneider died before the film was complete. "The film-makers' unique answer was to build a prosthetic latex mask based on Scheider's distinctive features and to use it, along with computer-generated imagery, to bring the lead actor back to life for one last performance." (Guardian) Sometimes the process requires no more than careful editing, as in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, with Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Ava Gardner and others corralled into a pastiche noir using footage from their earlier work and given a new context within this Steve Martin film.
Here then we have numerous films that potentially create problems with the divide that is created by the actor playing a character, and the past filming becoming the present viewing. A problem that can be resolved quite simply if film becomes a purely digital medium with no interest in life. If all actors become synthetic creations, figures created in computers rather than biological beings, then the problem of the subject split in two, and temporally in the past and the present, disappears. The figures are in a perpetual present and always themselves. Film is reduced to or evolves into full animation.
Perhaps now we can return to Syndromes and a Century. What does Weerasethakul wish to convey in this maddeningly incoherent film, in this work that doesn't so much go nowhere as go somewhere again in a different formulation? Let us say a third problem film offers to go with the other two we have explored, is memory in the most simplest of formulations. It is all very well for people to say a film is about memory, but is that a diegetic problem for the characters or one that extends to the viewers? When a character remembers their childhood and the film moves into flashback to recall it, the viewer needn't be perplexed by the recollection, but what if a character refers back to an earlier moment when they recall something the viewer might be expected to recall as well. If, in The Passenger, Jack Nicholson's character said to Schneider's that he remembered seeing her in London, we would have to recall whether we also saw her in London, unless of course the film chose to give us a flashback showing the footage again. In the latter instance, our memory wouldn't be called upon, as the film recalls for us. Many a thriller does exactly that, as some earlier details we may have missed are brought up again as someone explains exactly what happened.
But in Syndromes and a Century, the film doesn't want to offer explanations but to add to perplexity, to have us wondering what is repetition; what is not, and if it is repetition, what are we to make of it? In the interview scene and the similar scene in the second half of the film, a young man is also in the room. We might wonder if that young man is the same one in the later scene as in the earlier one, and what does such a claim mean in a film that proposes the second scene takes place many years after the former scene? What we mean surely is that it is the same actor: Nu Nimsomboon. Yet the character also goes by the same name in both parts: Toa. It is the same actor, and the character has the same name but can we say it is the same person as we can say that Popeye Doyle is the same person from one section of The French Connection to the next; as Michael Corleone is the same Michael at the beginning of The Godfather and at the end, despite his moral transformation? (And here we have chosen two films that produced sequels with the actor returning to the role, even if would have been possible to have a different actor in the part, just as in The Godfather II, Robert De Niro becomes the young Don Corleone, played in the first film as an older man by Marlon Brando.) Such confidence in characterisation (and the solidity of the actor playing that character) is often undermined in Weerasethakul's films.
In Syndromes and a Century, at the beginning of both the first and the second interview Dr. Toey and Dr. Nohng, we assume these are the same characters for two reasons chiefly. There is a repetition of dialogue in the exchange, and they go by the same names. Yet the form is different. In the first interview, we hold on Dr Nohng's face and in the second we have close ups on Toey's face as well as Nohng's. It makes Toey seem more interested in Nohng than in the first section, as though seeing Toey in long shot generates a distance that we also attribute to the character. After Nohng leaves, in both the first and the second section, the man we see gives her a present though we might feel that in the former she is happier with his offer than in the latter. Again, this might partly be a question of form rather than feeling: how the camera or the people are positioned rather than an interest or indifference on Toey's part. Nathan Lee sees this as a way to suggest a different emphasis on each section. "With its first half assuming the perspective (and one, might reasonably deduce, the disposition) of his mother and the latter portion that of his father, the film situates itself in a rural 1970s-era hospital and a state-of-the-art contemporary medical facility, respectively, its two narratives boasting variations on similar scenes and images." (Film Comment) Yet this notion of reasonably deducing is quite different from the deducing we might offer in Pulp Fiction, when we notice that we are in the same diner that we were in at the beginning of the film but that we are now with different characters in the diner. We know that the perspective has shifted from the two people doing the robbery and the two gangsters grabbing some breakfast. We can also say with more than a little confidence, that the robbers and the gangsters aren't just played by the same actors; they are indeed still the same characters. In Syndromes and a Century, the shift is inferred rather than deduced, which is why the most Lee can offer is reasonable deduction, even if we might think that vital to Weerasethakul's work is more irrational inference over the rationally deducible: that the film creates in the viewer an uncanny feeling of duplication rather than the canny feeling of a perspectival shift.
Watching Syndromes and a Century one can say that it seems like Dr Toey and Dr Nongh are the same characters many years later but only because they have the same names, are played by the same actors and share some of the same dialogue. Yet we know of plenty films where the same character is not played by the same actor and it is one of the abiding problems we have when watching films taking place over decades. It might be deemed good dramatic form to possess unity of time and space, but this theatrical parti pris has its own importance cinematically partly because of the difficulty in having an actor age over a large period of time. Sometimes this can be covered by make-up, as we find in Little Big Man or Once Upon a Time in America, where Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro respectively, age over a period of years and the prosthetics cover the gap. But in the latter film we also have De Niro's character as a child, and so too for all the leading characters as others actors play them as children. Can we accept the shift when the character remains the same but the actor does not? Pauline Kael noted when reviewing Once Upon a Time in America, "...Deborah, the dancer-actress that Noodles loves all his life, is marvellously vivid in her young girlhood, when she's played by Jennifer Connelly (who's so clear-eyed she walks away with the twenties passages), [but is less successful when] the role is taken over by Elizabeth McGovern, who's classically miscast." (New Yorker) It is a common problem and one Richard Linklater wished to resolve by filming Boyhood over twelve years, from when the actor was six to eighteen. The actor and the character aged together even if this was strictly illegal and all Linklater could hope was that the actors would stay with the production over such a long period of time. Otherwise, it would have breached the De Havilland law, which limits actors' contractual obligations. But the ageing problem was a big enough one for Linklater to hope the actors would continue filming for more than a decade despite being under no legal duty.
To explore this question would be for another piece but what it makes clear is that while it is common for two actors to play the one character over a lengthy period of time, it is often not without failures, and Linklater's innovative risk was an interesting attempt to eradicate the problem. It reminds us that actors are always playing characters but that most of the time we don't make much of this schism unless something brings it to our attention. Weerasethakul makes us aware of it not by the split but by casting the same actors in what seem to be the same roles but up to forty years apart. We notice that many of the reviews understandably solve this problem by relying on the extra-diegetic information that the film is based on Weerasethakul's parents. We have noted Nathan Lee's comments, and they are echoed by Genevieve Yu, who says the film is "ostensibly about Weerasethakul's parents" and that Weerasethakul has described the film as an imagined reconstruction of his parents' lives in a time before he was born." (Reverse Shot) Noel Murray says "according to Weerasethakul, Syndromes And A Century is loosely based on his parents' courtship and his memories of growing up around a small-town hospital campus." (AV Club) It isn't that critics take for granted this is what the film is about, but it is their way of grounding it in a story that can make some sort of sense. When in Yu's excellent piece she says (echoing Lee), "the first half, which takes place in a country hospital and focuses on the dalliances of Toey, is dedicated to his mother, while the second, set in contemporary Bangkok, loosely traces the paternal through Nohng", we can see how this plays out in the story. The first section definitely gives us aspects of Toey's life that is missing from the second; and in the second aspects of Nohng's life missing from the first. In the first half, when Nohng expresses his love for Toey, she tells him about a man she once knew as the film falls into flashback: a man she met at a farmer's market, someone who has grown an auspicious plant that will bring luck and that glows in the dark. We follow this story for more than ten minutes as it doesn't so much seem a flashback as a digression, one that pushes the story we thought we were exploring out of the way altogether as we never come back to it except in different form in the second part. After the story of the tree planter, we stay in the first section but follow a dentist at the hospital. But we may notice that in the flashback, Toey sits with the other man just as we have seen her sitting with Nohng as she starts to tell him the story: the framing is the same, the garden backdrop identical, and we distinguish the man from Nohng on the basis of the conversation and the clothes. The man isn't wearing the army khaki of Nohng, but beige slacks and a light blue T-shirt. He suggests to Toey that she comes and visits his farm.
If this is Toey's story it is told with a flagrant disregard for conventional focalisation. There we are moving into what we take for flashback and what we might assume will be a brief scene to contextualise why she might not quite have the same feelings for Nohng as Nohng has for her, only to stay in the flashback for many minutes and come out of into another story altogether: the dentist's interest in singing, and perhaps too in a monk to whom he offers dental care. Compared to most films that offer refocalisation, that tell a story from one point of view and then later show it from another, or from one version of events to another, Weerasethakul tells a story very badly indeed. When Hilary and Jackie starts by looking at things from Hilary Du Prez's perspective and then changes to Jacqueline's, we have a categorical focal shift, just as Run, Lola, Run, as it tells three stories that start from an identical premise but show three different versions of events, offers a clear temporal reconfiguration. Once we have readjusted our expectations, the film is easy enough to follow and to understand. By saying that the first half of Syndromes and a Century is seen from Toey's perspective we have to acknowledge the enormous differences when saying the same thing about Hilary and Jackie.
Equally, how much is the second half seen from Nonhg's viewpoint? More than in the first certainly, as we see that just as Toey was interested in another man, so Nongh is interested in another woman. He has a girlfriend Joy (Jarunee Saengtupthim) who wants him to move with her to another country, where her company will relocate the following year. She shows him photographs that Weerasethakul shows us in close up so that each image takes over the frame. It is the sort of place that indicates industrialisation at its most advanced, and though most would agree that Joy is an attractive women, it is a stretch to say that the locale she wishes Nonhg to move to is an attractive place. "Don't tempt me with nature" he says when she insists that it is close to the sea. But what we have seen is nothing but pylons and silos, and the temptation of nature manifests itself a moment later in the erection that her alluring gaze gives him. If in the first section, Toey was attracted to a man by the nature he offered, in the farm he proposes she visit, Nonhg is offered images of the opposite of the natural world but will sexual desire lead him to follow this woman to a place that few would be inclined to find appealing based on the photographs shown?
Perhaps one way of looking at the film isn't to see it as just about Weerasethakul's parents but also about that fascination with reincarnation, and propose that part of comprehending this generally incomprehensible film is to see how the clarity of the first meets the complications of the second, ones further entangled by the problems of time that cinema as a recording medium generates and the problem of identification that fiction film creates but then usually ignores. Imagine if the starting point would be a documentary on one's parents. We have no sub-division as the parents are themselves and perhaps we could have them detailing their burgeoning relationship which might have contradictions as one remembers events one way; the other differently. But that can be ironed out easily enough as the filmmaker chooses only the memories that they both agree upon. Then the film has the problem of time; with the parents invoked in the present but the past reduced to photos or if you are lucky some home movie footage. Again, easy enough to resolve as the viewer has little doubt that the people shown in the present are those looking much younger in the photos and footage shown. What we have is a pleasant account of how two people met as the film explores the burgeoning relationship and concludes on their old age.
Let us say this is the film Weerasethakul could have made. But then so many of the problems we have raised would have been foregone, especially if we see film as an art form of reincarnation par excellence. Writing on the director's Uncle Boonmee's Past Lives, Anders Bergstrom says: "cinema makes present on the screen images of the past, blurring the lines between presence and absence, alive and dead. Beyond simply representing the afterlife or ghosts on celluloid (or as digital files), cinema itself becomes a metaphor for the kind of mental processes that constitute us as individuals, including our memories and sense of self as unique individuals." (Mosaic) If film is an art form where we follow lives other than our own, this seems much more so in fictional films than documentary ones, as though in non-fiction filmmaking the undivided subject (the person is after all themselves) doesn't offer the same invitation as the divided one. If an actor is already playing a character, if they are already pretending to be someone else, does that generate in the viewer part of the suspension of disbelief that allows the viewer in turn to imagine other lives too? Thus we not only have an actor playing a character, we also have a viewer invited into the diegesis and creating proliferating selves. It is the difference between observing and identifying, between viewing a story and feeling it is part of our own. In this sense, cinema is a reincarnation as affect, with an actor occupying a character identified by the viewer. Add to this the temporal aspect that removes us from the time of the recording to the time of the viewing, which could be anything from a few weeks to many years, and we have life potentially in death. We are possibly identifying with dead people even if we are at the same time identifying with a living character within the story. Reincarnation may be a spiritual notion based on the transmigration of souls, but from a certain point of view film is doing this all the time. "Cinema is a vehicle we produce for ourselves and as part of us. It's like an extension of our soul that manifests itself" (Film Quarterly) Weerasethakul says.
What we have in Syndromes and a Century is the director giving birth to his parents as characters in a film played by actors, and in turn giving to viewers a disconcerting experience as the two main characters are doubled up and separated by several decades. Are these the same people going through the motions all over again in a different time or are they different people, if for no other reason than they are in a different period? But it's as if the director wished not only to describe their relationship but also memories of his own that could intermingle with the parentally biographical. Speaking of maybe his best film, the most successful in integrating the disintegration, Memoria, but pertinent to Syndromes and a Century, Weerasethakul says, "the medical settings come from my childhood...so hospitals in Thailand were my playground. Time is different there, and it has a unique smell. It's a place where I feel at home." (Frieze) But the film may also, and finally, wish to hint at the political without making a film about politics. Thailand has often proved an historically unstable country even if it has failed to make the international news: as though internal crises need not concern the West unless there is direct, western militaristic involvement, or deemed at least a clear threat to western interests. Between 1963 to 1973, Thailand was a military dictatorship, and in 2006, the year Syndromes and a Century was made, there was a military coup d'etat, with television reporting that "in the interest of maintaining law and order, a request is therefore made for public cooperation for which our apologies for any inconvenience."(Guardian) We wouldn't wish to make too much of this, we wouldn't want to turn the film into a political work, but the militaristic hangs over the film, in the army training Nongh has received to the uniform he wears in the first section. Any country that has had no less than a dozen coups since 1932 might be deemed close to an ongoing military state. "The political in my work is something that is hidden, but you slowly become aware of what happened historically in the particular place." (Film Quarterly)
We can conclude by saying that isn't quite the story Weerasethakul tells, but what story does the director tell? He perhaps seeks a telling that is barely a showing, an approach to narrative so tenuous and tentative, so unwilling to crystalise into a plot, or a spiritual or political theme, that we might wish to see in its fiction less an interest in offering a story than in disintegrating the selves that usually hold them together. It uses its form to dissolve form: making much of the long shots it often utilises to keep us at a remove from the people that hardly exist as characters but don't exactly occupy the space like subjects as they would in documentaries. Weerasethakul seems interested in creating a liminal cinema that asks many of the questions that film usually promptly resolves, and we can wonder whether such an endeavour arrives at a new kind of success or just a different type of failure. If we find Memoria more successful at holding together the dissolutions of its characters with the solutions to its telling, that might be no more than a matter of taste. In Memoria, Tilda Swinton is a British woman visiting Bogota where her sister is sick in hospital. Swinton has for a period time been hearing an intermittent thudding bang that is in her head but not in the world, and begins to understand something of her condition when visiting a man in the countryside who has never travelled but contains enormous memory capacity. The film also suggests a journey within a journey (as the already removed Jessica travels outside of the city), and a brilliant scene where a sound designer tries as accurately as possible to replicate the sound Jessica hears. But when cinema becomes as rarefied as Weerasethakul's, such moments can seem like a return to a narrative the director usually seeks to eschew. However, Weerasethakul (who has also produced various installation works) must surely realise that if cinema needn't be obligated to narrative it is obliged to time. The director's refusal of the expectations of film, raise many interesting questions but if Syndromes and a Century itself doesn't always arouse our curiosity perhaps that is partly because of those very questions.
© Tony McKibbin