A purely intoxicating tale of unrequited affection
Among the recent, eloquent outpourings of appreciation for Michelangelo Antonioni, a few writers stopped to wonder whether Antonioni would matter as much in today's climate. Probably not. If he did, we'd also all be talking about the films of the 37-year-old Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which are as richly atmospheric and as vaguely worried as the Italian's, a touch more pleasurable, too.
The truth is, like Antonioni before him, Weerasethakul is making non-narrative movies for serious movie lovers, and the marketplace in this country is increasingly indifferent to people who take movies seriously. Mind you, "serious" shouldn't be confused with "self-serious" - Weerasethakul makes serious movies without the burden of solemnity. He's one of the most excitingly unburdened directors in the world.
His fifth feature, "Syndromes and a Century," might be his most purely intoxicating (2002's "Blissfully Yours" and 2004's "Tropical Malady," both in dire need of greater viewer appreciation, received tiny US releases). This is as you should expect from a movie featuring a monk who once aspired to be a DJ with a comic-book store, and with an aerobic finale so effervescent it should come carbonated in a pull-tab can.
The contents of that cinematic soda would not contain Red Bull, though. Weerasethakul is a man of sly humor and great patience. There is play at the heart of his movies, yet they're contemplative to the point of being spiritual. When the camera moves, it does so with a deliberateness that haunts. While two characters gossip and chitchat during an early scene, the camera loses interest in following them and stares off, almost longingly (and for some length), at a field, a small house, and the string of trees beyond. We can hear the co-workers talking and in motion, but they've been rendered inconsequential. Nature is the visual imperative.
"Syndromes and a Century" was commissioned as part of Vienna's New Crowned Hope Festival, which celebrated Mozart's 250th birthday by soliciting works that honor his themes and artistic virtues. Starting today, each commissioned film is having a short run at the Museum of Fine Arts.
In part, Weerasethakul's contribution is a story of unrequited affection between a country doctor (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and her irrationally lovesick suitor, Toa (Nu Nimsomboon). Between patients, she asks him to lunch, and he demurs (he's not hungry), but he has no problem proposing marriage during the same conversation. He says he adores her. She says she can't relate, eventually telling this sap the story of a prior relationship with a man who sells glow-in-the-dark orchids, which the film shows us.
This is a sort of screwball comedy with droll, unexpected spices. The lunacy has been replaced by acute male sensitivity and sidelong sensuality. During an interview, she asks Toa what "DDT" stands for. Flummoxed, he guesses. "Destroy Dirty Things?" "Deep Down to You?" She moves on, but neither John Ashbery nor Prince could have given a better extemporaneous answer.
Like Weerasethakul's previous flights of lyricism, "Syndromes" is about the spell of attraction, but unlike them the spell dissipates and a kind of foreboding takes over. It happens not long after Arkanae Cherkam, as the film's dolorous singing dentist, finishes his rhythmic set at a nighttime fair and tells the monk, in a scene of almost innocent eroticism, that he thinks his dead brother has come back as this holy man.
A few scenes later, the movie seems to repeat itself. If the dentist's brother hasn't been reincarnated, some scenes and dialogue certainly have. Weerasethakul keeps the characters but their lives are slightly different. Nor is the temperature of the film's first hour the same. The hard, white, soulless interiors of a city hospital replace the pastoral imagery. We've gone from hot to cold and, conversely, from a kind of tropical heaven to glacial urban hell.
The exterior cutaways to statues or trees only heighten the spiritual and physical decay inside. That's where Toa's businesswoman girlfriend tells him she's excited to move to Chonburi; it's a city on the move. Her pictures, though, of men in control rooms and a ludicrously vast network of derricks and cranes and construction towers are dispiritingly funny: She wants to move into the global-industrial complex. If that's the price of a Third World country's First World upgrade, it's less than arousing. Of course, the scene ends with an erection, so what do I know?
Actually, her photos look like they could have come from Antonioni's environmental lament, "Red Desert," and the climactic eclipse in "Syndromes," a simulated colorless apocalyptic ode, is a brilliant variation on the one from his "L'eclisse." If I didn't believe in reincarnation before Weerasethakul's movie, I'm sure I do now.