The films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul occupy a fertile space between narrative and art object, where simple interactions accumulate and gain weight in a web of meaning that is held together as much by space and mood as it is by character and story. Like Tropical Malady, his new film consists of two parts, both involving a love story between doctors. What can just barely called the plot is loosely based on the memories of Weerasethakul’s parents.
Both halves of the film are set in hospitals, one in the past and the other in the present, and Syndromes and a Century is probably the strangest hospital drama since Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom: Buddhist monks come to tell their nightmares and finagle pills for their entire temple, dentists sing cowboy songs, and boozing chakra healers hide their liquor in prosthetic legs. One doctor tells a lengthy tale about wild orchids, another supposes that DDT stands for “Destroy Dirty Things.” Presents are exchanged, reincarnation is discussed, hearts are — perhaps — broken.
Among recent films, the surrealist pull of Syndromes and a Century doesn’t resemble anything as much as David Lynch’s Inland Empire, bathed in sunlight and freed from violent threats. Both films have a fragmented, time-bending structure in which themes and motifs return and form strange connections. Both directors are fond of dreamlike sequences in which the camera prowls hallways to a brooding score, and both culminate in bizarre, catchy musical numbers. But here the similarities end. While Lynch dregs shocking epiphanies from the gunk of the subconscious, Weerasethakul’s mysteries lie right on the surface, in the obvious, seemingly trivial moments that are riddle and answer at once.
Syndromes and a Century received theatrical distribution in the U.S. in 2007. The DVD was released on January 15, 2008.