Syndromes and a Century – “in and outside the human being”
In the early twentieth century, certain philosophies began to supplant the dominant view of Enlightenment thinking concerning “man” as the locus of knowledge and reality. There were certainly precedents to anti-humanist philosophy in the 19th century and earlier but it was not until the twentieth century that many philosophers synthesized these ideas into a more or less coherent philosophical position. How has this shift in thinking affected cinema? For the most part there has been no significant effect aside from a few exceptions like Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la luz (2010), Michelangelo Frammartino’s La quattro volte (2010), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) (click here for Adrian Martin’s brief but insightful analysis of Vigo’s masterpiece) and the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Weerasethakul, one of the most creative and challenging directors working today, made seven shorts in the 1990s until making his first feature Mysterious Object at Noon (2000). Each subsequent film by Weerasethakul is an event in world cinema and every time he surprises his audience by making more audacious films each time. One of the most intriguing aspects of his work is the way Weerasethakul emphasizes the non-human aspects of film narratives. This is done mainly through his compositions and editing but also happens at the script level as well. Like the films mentioned above, Weerasethakul’s films refuse to focus exclusively on human elements, incorporating the setting of the narratives and ideas that cannot be reduced to human action. There is no better example of this in Weerasethakul’s cinema than Syndromes and a Century (2006).
Inspired by his parents’ experiences as doctors in Thailand, Weerasethakul tells a story about various doctors and their patients in two parts. The first section of the film is set in a rural hospital and the second section is set in Bangkok. Scenes that took place in the first half of the film are then repeated in the second half but in different locations this time around. The camera set-up is also different. There are several scenes in the first half where the camera was photographing a conversation from one position and then this position is reversed in the second half, showing the audience the other side of the space that was behind the camera in the first half. But this space is obviously not the same space that was not framed in the first half of the film because the setting has changed. The un-photographed (off screen) space in the first scene is now transformed. The camera position has changed but so has the setting, the office space is now in a modern hospital. The change in location represents a transformation and literally is a transformation. Objects and the non-human elements of the frame play just as much importance in the narrative as do the human subjects in the frame which means that equal narrative weight is given to the locations where these characters exist and to the characters themselves.
Transformation is the primary concept at work in Syndromes and a Century. To “gather new experiences” is what the new doctor says in the first half and being transformed from a rural doctor in a urban one is certainly a new experience. New spaces equal new experiences in this film. Which, by extension, means new spaces are part of transformation as well. Comparing the same doctor mentioned above, how different is he in the second half compared to the first? Quite a bit. His entire disposition has changed in fact; now he is happy, comfortable being himself, and successful. Changes physical space are equally as important to changes in a character’s psychological state and the city-dweller versions of these characters are transformed from the rural versions seen in the first half of the film.
The use of dead space in Syndromes and a Century also emphasizes the non-human elements of the story and the frame. Look at how Weerasethakul photographs and cuts certain scenes. When a character enters a the frame it is after a significant amount of time has passed between the start of the shot and when the character enters. And when the character leaves the frame, Weerasethakul holds the shot, lingering on the space that lacks a human subject. How else are we to interpret the shot where Weerasethakul’s camera slowly approaches an air duct that almost threatens to swallow everything up? I am sure there many ways to read this image within the context of the film but interpreting it within the conceptual framework of transformation allows this shot to work with everything that came before it rather than stand out as a discontinuous element. Buildings, hallways, air ducts are part of human transformation. The materials we create and inhabit allow us to move beyond our biological restraints and become something. The spooky air duct is depicted as the annihilation of transformation/progress/metamorphosis, an ominous anti-thesis of renewal and rebirth.
Weerasethakul’s cinema and Syndromes and a Century in particular demonstrate possibilities of narrative storytelling that are necessarily excluded when filmmaker’s limit their focus to the human elements of the frame. By leveling out the focus of his story, Weerasethakul is able to connect personal narratives of transformation with spacial and physical changes of the setting. Not only is this film an example of how to invoke a non-humanist metaphysics into the narrative but it is also a great work to study for budding filmmakers that have big ideas but small budgets. Claire Denis once said “Freedom is not having a big budget” and as cinephiles all know Denis’ films are never compromised. The same can be said of Weerasathakul’s cinema even when the censorship board in Thailand refused to show this film in his native country. Both of these filmmakers have learned how to explore complex ideas with limited resources and world cinephilia is better off because of it.