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Funded by the city of Vienna as part of the celebration marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, Syndromes and a Century by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady), is a visionary masterpiece that blurs the boundaries of past and present and, like the plays of Harold Pinter, explores the subjectivity of memory. It is an abstract but a very warm and often very funny film about the director's recollections of his parents, both doctors, before they fell in love. According to Apichatpong, however, it is not about biography but about emotion. "It's a film about heart", he says, "about feelings that have been forever etched in the heart." Structured in two parts similar to Tropical Malady, the opening sequence takes place in a rural hospital surrounded by lush vegetation. A woman doctor, Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) interviews Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram), an ex-army medic who wants to work in the hospital, the two characters reflecting the director's parents. The questions, quite playfully, are not only about his knowledge and experience but also about his hobbies, his pets, and whether he prefers circles, squares or triangles. When asked what DDT (Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) stands for, he replies, "Destroy Dirty Things".
Like the fragmented recollection of a dream, the film is composed of snippets of memory that start suddenly then end abruptly without resolution. A dentist wants to become a singer and takes an interest in one of his patients, a Buddhist monk whose dream is to become a disc jockey. A fellow doctor awkwardly proclaims his desperate love for Dr. Toey who relates to him a story about an infatuation that she had with an orchid expert who invited her to his farm. A woman doctor hides a pint of liquor inside a prosthetic limb. A monk tells the doctor of some bad dreams he has been having about chickens. A young patient with carbon monoxide poisoning bats tennis balls down a long hospital corridor.
Syndromes and a Century does not yield to immediate deciphering as it moves swiftly from the real to the surreal and back again. Halfway through the film, the same characters repeat the opening sequence but this time it is in a modern high-tech facility and the mood is changed as well as the camera focus. The second variation is less intimate than the first, but there are no overarching judgments about past or present, rural or urban, ancient or modern. Things are exactly the way that they are and the way they are not, and we are left to embrace it all. Towards the end, a funnel inhales smoke for several minutes as if memories are being sucked into a vortex to be stored forever or forgotten. Like this serenely magical film, it casts a spell that is both hypnotic and enigmatic.
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