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Syndromes And A Century

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The films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul almost redefine the word "inaccessible," at least as it applies to cinema. Weerasethakul doesn't indulge in hardcore austerity to the extent that a lot of Asian art-film directors do. His takes aren't punishingly long, or still, or quiet. Something's nearly always happening. But the meaning of it all—the literal meaning, not just the themes—often remains locked in Weerasethakul's head. His latest feature film, Syndromes And A Century, may be his most elusive. Divided into two parts—just like his Blissfully Yours and Tropical MaladySyndromes And A Century opens in a rural hospital, where young doctors and patients play out subtle mating rituals against a backdrop of contemplative Buddhist temples and verdant outdoor parks. Then, in the second half, everything resets, as the same characters occupy a sterile modern urban hospital, where relationships become corrupted by technology and industrial contamination.


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. But knowing that backstory isn't really necessary to "getting" the movie. If anything, the less people let Weerasethakul interpret his own movies, the better, since in his earlier work, he's frequently staggered long stretches of incomprehensibility with deflated stabs at explanation via symbolism. Of course, there's symbolism popping through Syndromes And A Century too, much of it derived from the film's rhyming structure. A solar eclipse in part one becomes a gas-obscured air duct in part two, a friendship struck up over a dental procedure becomes supplanted later by the whirr of modern machinery and muffling layers of protective gear, and everywhere in the second half, we see amputees and artificial limbs, implying that urbanites aren't "complete." But Syndromes And A Century doesn't seem to be begging for an explanation, and that lack of insistence makes a difference.

This film is much more alive to the small pleasures of watching people interact—or fail to. Its individual sequences spin along, lovely and mesmerizing, and they're not really all that hard to understand, in and of themselves. It's in figuring out how they all fit together that Syndromes And A Century can become maddening. So don't try too hard. Better instead to revel in the moments that sparkle, like the quick transition at the end of the film from the oppression of a construction site to the exuberance of an outdoor aerobics routine. These moments, enjoyable and arcane, may not add up to a masterpiece. But they're uniquely Weerasethakul's.