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Original Title:
Sang sattawat

Thailand 2006


Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Nantarat Sawaddikul
Jaruchai Iamaram
Arkanae Cherkam
Sakda Kaewbuadee
Jenjira Pongpas
Sophon Pukanok
Nu Nimsomboon
Sin Kaewpakpin
Wanna Wattanajinda

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Syndromes and a Century

Story: Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) is looking for a new doctor in her hospital. She hires the quiet man Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), but soon has to face a declaration of love from dentist and hobby musician Ple (Arkanae Cherkam). She puts him off with a story about an orchid merchant named Noom (Sophon Pukanok) who also had some interest in her. Ple doesn't know why the female physician is telling him this story but he takes comfort in the fact that the monk Sakda (Sakda Kaewbuadee) also had to give up his dream of becomig a radio DJ. Ple is reminded of his younger brother by him who lost his life in a tragical accident in his childhood and soon a friendship is evolving between the two. At the same time Dr. Nohng is quickly adopting to his new work place when his girlfriend reveals that her company is soon moving someplace else and that he should come with her. However, Nohng is everything but sure about giving up his job at the hospital which is located right in the heart of nature in exchange for a life at an industrial site.

Review: It's a real challange to give a synopsis about the events in "Syndromes and a Century". The movie offers no real story, at best it's the relationships between the characters that stand in the main focus. Then again, they are viewed upon from a certrain distance, too, and the narration walks on paths you have seldomly seen before in a movie. Flashbacks take us into the memory of the characters, moments of memory become reality, truth and dream seem to merge and in the end apart from the buddhist theme of reincarnation the polarity between nature and technological progress composes the centre of the film. Many critics have praised the movie for its innovativeness and found a lot of positive words about the feeling the film can create in you. No one of them could give some real sense to the story, though. If you don't get it then it must be art, even more it must be good art. Anyway, I won't go down this easy road. "Syndromes and a Century" is interesting, but it certainly has its share of problems.

The first part of the movie revolves around female doctor Toey and her memory of a love story with a man, who seemingly only saw her as a friend. This part is standing out with a lot of nice landscape shots and despite a leasure pacing there are also some dialogues so that the film isn't completely mute as we are used to see from many other "art"-movies. In fact, the subtle humor director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has worked into his movie is a welcome change and very refreshing. It loosens up the drama and makes the dialogues of the physicians which actually have only everyday topics in their focus more interesting. Along with the numerous outdoor shots in the heart of nature "Syndromes and a Century" can really create a certain feeling of peace and tranquility, almost a magical feeling. Adding to that, the characters are fascinating, e.g. the monk who actually wanted to become a DJ or the dentist who is connected to him by a strong bond of friendship because he believes to have found the reincarnation of his brother, for whose death he is responsible, in him.

It's also not really that much of a problem that our interest for the characters isn't rewarded. We don't get to know anything more about the individual protagonists than what's necessary and oftentimes even less than that. We are used to similar stuff from other dramas. The green fields, the eclipse of the sun, the little concert of the dentist, all of this creates an inner melody that is appealing and enchanting. But then...
... we are thrown into a parallel universe which apparently is somewhere in the present/future. Probably the buddhist symbol of reincarnation is supposed to come to the fore, too. We get the same job interview from the beginning with a few little variations. Other scenes are repeated as well, at some points the parallels are obvious at others you have to take a closer look to see them, for example the solar eclipse which is depicted by the black hole of a big tube this time. In this story the newly hired doctor stands in the center of events and there is almost no nature to be found anywhere. Bright, sterile corridors that create a feeling of isolation, enclosed spaces that are suffocating, talks that are tiring or long snapshots of the different interior rooms of the hospital make the film a true trial of patience.

Where exactly is the drama in this? For me the movie is undoubtfully a comparison of contrasts. Tradition and technological progress, past and present, nature and technology, woman and man, all of this wrapped up in a split movie whose break can only be made out retrospectively. The problem is exactly this splitting as it naturally arouses opposing moods. While during the first part a certain dreaminess could capture the audience it's a feeling of isolation and lonelineness, an infinite cold distance only brigthened up on a few occasions that creeps into the viewer in the second part. The long shots of the hospital corridors and rooms along with the score even cause a feeling of angst as if becoming part of a nightmare. The insertion of some snapshots in the shape of pictures of an industrial site underline this feeling even more. The last picture of the film, a group of people that are participating in some kind of early morning exercise, is supposed to free us from this isolation. In place of the audience they shake off the feeling of loneliness. But then again, this more joyful last picture doesn't fit into what we have seen the 45 minutes before.

Art has to be coherent as well or create a certain wholeness by showing extremes. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who shouldn't be unknown to western audiences thanks to his movie "Tropical Malady", doesn't succeed in doing so, though. There is an orchid in the movie that a botanist is describing as actually ugly and chaotic concerning its outer appearance, yet it is very rare and therefore something precious, being of great value. It's obvious that this could also describe "Syndromes and a Century". It's just that I don't get why most critics assign the movie that much of a great value for exactly the above mentioned reasons. The melancholy of the pictures, the quiet directing with the many long shots, the beautiful landscapes of nature, all of that and especially the first part of the film are really very appealing, but with its second part the drama is simply alienating. Which is what makes you think: Why this kind of alienation? Why is the modern world so alienating and isolating and nature isn't? Maybe this is were the true message of the movie lies.
A movie for lovers of art who like art for the sake of art or for those who can overcome the frustration the film arouses and are willing to look for the message in this somewhat chaotic movie.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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