Spellbinding Syndromes

I’m dizzy with joy. I’ve just had one of those rare experiences at the movies. It only happens about once a year, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. It’s that giddy feeling that I’ve just seen something which will become an all-time favorite, something I can’t wait to see again soon, and again, and again. And I can’t summarize what’s great about it, because it’s a vast, mysterious, and beautiful work.

Syndromes and a Century, directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is a transporting, hyponotizing experience. It’s a long poem about:

  • transition, and the fragile threads between eras;
  • tenuous connections, or attempts to connect, between starkly different people;
  • possibilities and questions that rise like like feathers and then drift off unanswered;
  • conversations that happen in one context, and then again¬†in another, provoking us to consider what the differences in the “proposed” scenes convey about worldviews, genders, generations, and the differences between the intellect and the heart.

It’s entirely unpredictable in the best ways. And it contains three or four of the most breathtaking scenes I’ve ever experienced, reminding me of moments like that miraculous wave of wind in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

Now, a word of warning. This is more poetry than prose. It’s not a fast-food meal… it’s a meditative work of art. It’s the kind of thing that might actually prove substantially nourishing, because it demands a great deal of the viewer. You might want to have a pot of coffee on hand. Those of you who thought I was crazy to rave about Malick’s The New World may not find anything to love here.

But I was reminded of many other favorite films, movies that, even though I return to them again and again with deepening appreciation, could not be more different:

from Songs from the Second Floor, the way it is mournful, and yet somehow darkly funny, with moments of inspired surrealism;

to Yi Yi, with its emphasis on reflections, divided frames, opportunities missed, paths taken and regretted, and crossroads;

to Tony Takitani, with its slow, steady pace gliding from scene to dreamlike scene;

to The World, with deep-focus, layered images that offer commentary on global change;

to moments of sinister, slow-zoom foreboding that remind me of David Lynch’s work in films from The Straight Story to Inland Empire; to Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, with its buoyant, rhythmic finale.

Clearly, I’ve only scratched the surface with this first viewing. But I’m confident this is going to become an all-time favorite. It’s beautiful to watch, and each scene could merits plenty of meditation and discussion.

On this first pass, I’m haunted by a moment when two groups of people pass in a hospital corridor. One is a group of uniformed nurses, representing a particular work, a particular order, a particular perspective. The other seems to be a group of students. The groups pass each other. But in each case, one member falls behind, pausing to tie a shoelace. This suggested to me that the film’s constant juxtapositions — men and women, civilization and nature, old and new, religious and scientific — are asking a question about what it is we have in common, what it is that we share no matter what our path. The shoelace suggests a flaw, but a connection that can be found through that imperfection.

But there is also a sense of real loss, and even destruction, as we move from one world to the next. The power and purity of sunlight is captured in moments of unforgettable glory here, but the sterility and suffocating artificiality of some of the hospital environments gave me a sense of dread not unlike the nightmarish future of Brazil.

I feel as though I had better stop writing, or I will sit here working on this post for the next several hours.

But… oh, wow.

I’m reluctant to read any reviews just yet, because my head is spinning and I don’t want to read anybody else’s interpretations just yet. As I scan down through the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes, I see that one fellow criticized it because “Nothing happens.” That does it. I don’t want my enjoyment to be cluttered by somebody else’s hasty dismissals.

He couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, some of the film’s furious tension comes from the fact that something enormous is happening here, and it is happening while two women sit under a tree and talk casually, apparently oblivious to how the world — and cosmic bodies beyond it — are turning. And somewhere, a dark and frightening vacuum is sucking up the vapors of an era and all of its memories and wisdom.

I’ll be smiling after the Oscars tomorrow night. But it will have nothing to do with the Oscars. I’ll be thinking about Syndromes and a Century.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • facesunveiled

    I just finished watching Syndromes, and my initial reaction is similar to when I first watched Mirror: Lots of pretty/interesting images, but I think I missed most of what was going on. Of course, my problem with Mirror was that I was looking for a story when there really isn’t one; maybe something similar is in play here. (Because of how much I love Tarkovsky’s other films, I read some commentary on it and gave Mirror another chance, and had a much better experience the second time through.)

    One concrete thing I noticed was that in the “country” part, the camera didn’t move; it found a comfy spot and camped out there to watch the actors, kind of like in Ozu’s Tokyo Story. But in the “city” part, the camera was much more active, especially in the concluding scenes. Again, don’t know if it means anything, but it was intriguing.

    This might be one I have to try again in a few months.

  • Thanks for the link, Darren! I’m going to wait a while, and probably watch the film again, before I start reading other reviews. I want to find my own interpretation before I start reading others. But again, thanks! If he’s your favorite film writer, he must have some very special insight.

    Adam, I wish we could watch it together. I have a very strong sense that there *are* unifying factors, but they’re very subtle, and it’ll take a while to tease them out. We can talk about them next time we run into each other…

  • This was one of the most beautifully directed and acted films I’ve seen this year, with several strong scenes. But those scenes never connected in any meaningful way, and there were long periods where nothing was going on… It was almost as if the director just left the camera rolling, to no purpose.

    In fact, I found the experience kind of like Inland Empire, minus all the unifying elements.

  • longpauses

    I’m glad you rented this one, Jeff. It ended up in a three-way tie with Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth and Jia Zhang-ke’s Dong/Still Life for my favorite of 2006, so I was thrilled to pick up a copy of the new DVD a couple weeks ago. I’ve only watched the disc all the way through once, but I pop it in pretty regularly to watch favorite scenes — kind of like listening to favorite songs on an album. His other features are all available from Netflix, and each is as impressive in different ways.

    I’m at a loss as to how to go about writing about Syndromes and a Century, but Michael Sicinski’s site is a good place to go for inspiration. (Mike’s probably my favorite film writer, period.)

  • gurghimotion

    Just put this one in back in its Netflix envelope w/out finishing it. Zzzzz…. no chance w/ me on the small screen.

    (For the record, I saw The New World in the theatre twice.)

  • Wow, now that’s an endorsement! I’ll be looking for this one…