Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Syndromes and a Century

2006, Thailand/France, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatong Weerasethakul's fourth feature is preoccupied, in the best sense, with exploring the same stories again. That is most obvious here in the film's two-part structure, which occasionally replays entire sequences in new settings and from new perspectives - a medical diagnosis shown once from behind the patient's back, and later from behind the doctor's seat, for instance. In addition, Weerasethakul sometimes revisits scenes from earlier in his filmography, such as in the telling of a folk tale - subtly different in its conclusion - which was recounted in Tropical Malady.

I decided at the beginning of the year to be a little more systematic in my approach to several newer filmmakers, watching all of their work in a short space of time. It's a method that has proved particularly fruitful with Weerasethakul, for it has revealed - much more clearly than I think might have been the case with long gaps between viewings - many of the themes and aesthetic choices to which he returns time and again. In addition to sharing many of his earlier formal concerns, there's also an especially rich sense of human connection in this most recent work, perhaps because it is loosely inspired by the lives of his parents, both medical professionals.

As in his previous work, the director foregrounds the careful construction of atmosphere over narrative. Even when the settings appear, on the surface, to be busy urban locations there's often a languid, enveloping tone to individual scenes: there's a hint of bustle in scenes set in a big city hospital, but Weerasethakul searches out refuges from that more frenetic rhythm, in the hospital grounds or in a basement room where the doctors gather to relax and even continue their work, hidden from prying eyes.

Similarly, the meeting of tradition and modernity in contemporary Thailand is again a key motivator in this work. The shots of a statue of Buddha by a basketball court or set against a modern hospital structure exemplify this confrontation, which is also present in the warmly humorous account of a young monk who yearns for a career as a DJ, and whose visits to a clinic are a means of staying in touch with that ambition. On one occasion, he's serenaded by his dentist, prompting him to inquire whether he's there for a checkup or a concert; the monk, saffron-robed and barefoot, sits in a dentist's chair surrounded by the paraphernalia of a modern clinic.

An older monk features in the scenes that open the film's two different segments, and those sequences, which involve long medical histories - similar scenes in the offices of doctors and veterinarians recur frequently in Weerasethakul's films - underline the fact that there is more than one way of approaching medical problems: while the Western-style doctors attempt to provide a satisfactory diagnosis for the monk, the older man makes his own silent diagnosis of the doctors' needs and hands over herbs for a healing tea near the end of each interview. The idea of two parallel methods of perceiving medical issues is similar to the way in which Weerasethakul illustrates two entirely different ways of seeing the world in both Mysterious Object at Noon and Tropical Malady, which blend realism with fantasy, blurring the line between the apparently "real" world and its mythical parallel.

Weerasethakul creates careful visual distinctions between the first and second halves of his film: while the first segment relies almost exclusively on medium shots, the second opens with an unexpected close-up, as if we're now primed to see a greater degree of detail in the scenes that we experience anew. Those repetitions are strikingly effective, compelling us to focus on the subtleties of his characters rather than simply sweeping us along in a conventional narrative. There's a tenderness to his depiction of both the patients and the young doctors, who are often endearingly tentative and shy, that has become a more important presence in his work as his career has progressed; there's a wonderful sense of watching real, fully imagined characters here, and there's a refreshing optimism in the director's generous characterisations.

The film ends with an open-air exercise session, a scene that refers back to Tropical Malady and which also recalls the conclusion of Claire Denis's Beau travail - except that Denis Lavant's solitary, improvised dancing is replaced by a collectively choreographed experience. It's as mesmerizingly strange an ending, however, as in that earlier film, apparently unrelated to what has preceded it, and yet of a piece with Weerasethakul's wonderful eye for the unexpected composition and incongruous juxtaposition.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States