The young Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is not exactly a household name in the U.S. But on film-festival circuits, and wherever cineastes huddle (if you can huddle on the Internet, on sites such as GreenCineDaily) his unpronounceable name is inspiring a devoted following. Apichatpong ("Blissfully Yours," "Tropical Malady") is a true original, with a cinematic voice entirely his own, as anyone fortunate enough to see his hypnotic latest film, "Syndromes and a Century," will discover. I first saw it last fall at the New York Film Festival, and it sent me out into the streets in a state of euphoria I couldn't properly explain. It opens in New York this week, and will be playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities in the coming months. I won't pretend it will be to everybody's taste—it fits into no recognizable genre and doesn't give a fig for "plot" in any conventional sense—but for those seeking a palette cleanser after a steady diet of Hollywood "product," it's as invigorating as a perfect sorbet.
"Syndromes and a Century" resists easy synopsis or explanation. It is at once mysterious and mundane, modest and ambitious, rigorously formalist but with a playful, improvisatory feel. The first half is set in the country, at a medical clinic, where in a series of vignettes that are loosely structured around courtships, we get to know a variety of characters. Most of these same people will appear in the second half, which is set in a big-city hospital.
A young female doctor is interviewing a prospective surgeon, asking this shy, hangdog young man a series of peculiar questions. Does he prefer triangles, circles or squares? What does DDT mean? "Destroy Dirty Things," he answers. Her next patient is an old Buddhist monk, who suffers from bad dreams about chickens (as a young man, he tortured the animals, and now fears his karma has come back to haunt him). The handsome young monk who accompanies him is seen getting his first dental exam in his saffron robes. The dentist, a singer of love songs on the side, is drawn to the monk (who once wanted to be a DJ), thinking he may be the reincarnation of his brother, whose childhood death still fills him with guilt. In a lovely nighttime scene that subtly plays like an unspoken seduction, he asks him if he could be his brother. No, the priest says matter of factly, I wasn't a human in my last lifetime.
The camera rarely moves in the first half; the tone is a delicate balance of the lyric and a kind of warm deadpan comedy. The woman doctor is pursued by a love-struck young man. She, in turn, tells him about her past attraction to a seller of orchids, and we see the tentative beginnings of this unfulfilled affair. These country scenes show the director’s gift for unforced poetry: a gathering of white-clad nurses at night, sitting on a children's swing as they watch a volleyball game, lodges in the mind like a powerful childhood memory of a lazy, balmy night.
Suddenly, halfway through, the movie seems to start all over again. The same doctor is interviewing the same young man, with nearly identical dialogue, but we are in that Bangkok hospital, under glaring indoor light. "Tropical Malady," Apitchapong's last film, also split in two: one half realistic, in bright sunshine; the other a nocturnal, mystical jungle fantasy in which one of the two male lovers reappears as a tiger. Duality, repetition, reincarnation: these are themes that haunt his quietly mesmerizing films. "Syndromes" explores the polarities of city/country, male/female and also the old and the modern as reflected in characters who merge their Buddhist beliefs with their scientific perspective. These are not either/or propositions. Apitchapong may be a formalist, but he works from the inside out, intuitively, not imposing some abstract intellectual pattern on his material. His movies, which use nonprofessional actors, are acutely attuned to small, everyday details. The charm of "Syndromes and a Century" wards off any taint of pretension.
The director has said that this film is about his parents, who were doctors when they met—the first half about his mother, the second about his father—which is a helpful way of locating the tale, but there's no way of knowing this from the film itself, which seems to take place in the present. "Syndromes and a Century" shouldn't be looked at as a puzzle to be solved. Just immerse yourself in its magical imagery and let its lyrical, strange and often very funny images trigger your own memories and associations. Notice how a striking shot of a solar eclipse in the first half finds its echo in the second part, in a long, gliding, mysterious shot of swirling smoke in a deserted hospital utility room, as it's sucked into a huge duct as black and round as that eclipse. I have no idea what it means, but like the entire movie, it's absolutely mesmerizing.