SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has said that Sang sattawat is a tale of two trees representing his doctor-parents, one on the grounds of a rural hospital in the 1970s, the other on the grounds of an urban hospital in the present day. The film is divided into two parts—the bifurcated structure begging a series of questions, including: What is the present without the past? city without the country? one parent without the other? One gauge of the success of this film, which is full of talk about reincarnation, is our sense that the breeze animating one tree is the same as the breeze, eternal, animating the other.
     In the first part, Dr. Toey is interviewing Dr. Nohng, an army medic, for a job at the hospital. Nohng describes himself as cheerful (all his friends think him this, he says), but he seems uniformly glum to us. On the other hand, during the interview Toey seems efficient and good-natured, if a bit capricious and power-wielding. These are the two characters representing Apichatpong’s folks, but it is another young man whom we see pursuing Toey with gifts and even a marriage proposal. At lunch outdoors, in a park adjacent to both the hospital and a temple, Toey interrupts her suitor’s profession of lovesickness to recount a story about another suitor of hers; but the solar eclipse that occupies imaginative time and space in this story, we see as occupying material—real—time and space.
     The first part also includes the repressed, unrealized homosexual relationship between a dentist and his patient, a Buddhist monk. (The dentist has an alternative career as a pop singer, and the title of his new CD is I Could Only Look.) Apichatpong himself is gay.
     Part Two begins with an updated, transplanted version of Toey’s interview of Nohng, which includes verbatim some of the original interview, but deletes some of it and adds to it. This time, Nohng seems more relaxed, good-natured, while Toey is the glum one now. Perhaps it is the same monk who appears, only thirty years older; in any case, he dreams of chickens and is counseled to eat fruits and vegetables instead, which are healthier. Hospital corridors are blindingly white, sterile. Someone missing one arm and both legs makes his way down one corridor; we watch patients who have been fitted with them try out artificial limbs. (At film’s end, our memory of this haunts an outdoor mass aerobic session.) Scenes echo scenes from the film’s first part—but not necessarily with any sense of advancement. The solar eclipse, whether imagined or real, has degenerated into a utility room air duct; the repressed homosexual relationship, now involving a teenaged boy, now appears as more repressed, and predatory. We cannot help but notice that in neither half do those representing the filmmaker’s parents come together romantically.
     And that may be the point: the sterility of the world if they hadn’t come together—sort of like one of the mawkish episodes from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but troubling here rather than theatrical/corny. What if . . . ? What price that we cannot see does everyone—everyone—pay when social pressures or insidious moralism keep apart any couple meant to be?
     Apichatpong crafts long, static takes; but what lies underneath his film’s appearance of serenity, encapsulated in a gigantic statue of the Buddha, unsettles.

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