Life isn’t a meaning, said Chaplin, but a desire. I may be quoting inaccurately, but given the sentiment, who cares? Chaplin was so precise in his art that he could roller-skate blindfolded to the edge of an abyss; and yet, true to his words, he seemed to love the audience’s giddiness a little more than his own supreme poise, the image of an open road more than the certainty of “The End.”
Giddiness, openness, poise, desire: These words may do as well as any to suggest the life you find everywhere in the inexplicable but wondrous Syndromes and a Century. Written and directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or Joe, as he’s often called in the West), Syndromes and a Century is a work of immaculate craftsmanship, but one that is impossible to summarize, any more than a wind-sown arboreal orchid (one of the film’s main props) could be brought to ground. All you might say, in a pinch, is that the movie consists of scenes in and around two present-day hospitals, one somewhere in the countryside and the other in Bangkok.
o story links these two places; and since a separate stretch of movie is dedicated to each–first the rural hospital, then the urban one–you might even say that the running time sets them apart. Nothing crosses this divide except a Cheshire-cat smile. A woman called Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and a man called Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) appear in both halves of the film, but I can’t say whether these figures are meant to be the same people working in different places or whether the hospitals are staffed by identically named look-alikes. Incidents recur, too–a soldier awkwardly declares his love for Dr. Toey, an elderly monk recounts a troubling dream about a chicken, a young monk undergoes dental treatment–but with variations that alter the tone of each encounter. (The outcomes can’t be changed because there aren’t any, cause and effect having been suspended as airily as the orchid.) On a higher level of variation, motifs including exercise classes, public recreations and renditions of pop music are enacted in rural and urban versions, cheerfully but to no apparent purpose.
Do these doublings mean anything at all? In statements and interviews, Joe has spoken of them as expressions of his belief in reincarnation. But since the film’s monks have the best lines about that topic, I will concentrate on Joe’s explanation that his parents were doctors “who raised us kids in a house provided by the small-town hospital where they worked.” This place has now changed so much, he says, that “the landscapes and hospital buildings that I remember simply don’t exist anymore.” Unable to recapture his memories of the past, he has taken pleasure in recapturing the feelings evoked by his memories. Beyond that, he says, Syndromes and a Century is “an experiment in re-creation of my parents’ lives before I was born,” with the movie’s first half focused on a figure ostensibly representing his mother and the second half on the father figure.
Plausible. But if Dr. Toey and Dr. Nohng are supposed to become Joe’s parents, they don’t make any progress on it in this movie, where their sole encounter is charming, brief and entirely official. There’s plenty of desire in part one, but it flows from a lovesick soldier (Nu Nimsomboon) toward Dr. Toey, who can respond only with a diagnosis; from Dr. Toey toward a botanist (Sophon Pukanok), who seems in recollection to have been more interested in the arboreal orchid than in her; and from a pop-singing dentist (Arkanae Cherkam) toward an object of romantic interest who is unattainable, being a monk (Sakda Kaewbuadee).