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Feature Friday: “Syndromes and a Century” (2006)

Easily one of the best films of the past seven years, by one of the greatest living filmmakers, Apichatapong Weerasethakul.

A funny story: I actually knew him, when I lived in Thailand (2003–5). I was given his cell phone number by a mutual film friend. One day I went to visit him at his studio in northern Bangkok. We sat around for a while, talking movies. Finally I asked what he was working on. [Note that this was in 2004, by which point I had seen only his first feature, the brilliant exquisite corpse Mysterious Object at Noon (2000).] He told me that he was finishing a new film, trying to get it ready in time for Cannes. “If we finish in time, we go,” he said. “If not—mai pen rai” (“no worries”).

That film turned out to be Tropical Malady (2004), which went on to win Cannes’s Jury Prize, effectively launching Apichatapong’s career. I’m glad I didn’t distract him overmuch!

Two years later, Apichatapong followed it up with a film some consider even better. (I myself rank them about the same, which is to say that they are both essential masterpieces of contemporary cinema.)

Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ) (2006)

Directed and written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

… Summarizing Apichatpong’s films is difficult. They’re narrative, but very experimental. And yet at the same time, they’re also very simple. Usually they’re told in two parts, being two separate stories, each one commenting on the other. Syndromes is ostensibly about how his doctor parents met and fell in love. In the first half, they’re working in Isan (Thailand’s rural northeast, up near Laos). In the second, they’re working in Bangkok. Each time the story is different, occurring, even, in different years. (Apichatpong’s fundamental maneuver is to render all narrative, even present-day accounts, as myth.)

Well, the film is just phenomenal. For my money, Apichatpong is one of the most compelling experimental storytellers working today, and anyone interested in experimental fiction or narrative should not resist exploring his work. (I don’t think it’s wrong to compare him to Alain Resnais / Alain Robbe-Grillet / Marguerite Duras.) [Related: Jeremy I talked some about Syndromes and other Apichatpong films here, in our conversation about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.]

And if you don’t watch the whole movie (unforgivable!), at least watch the final fifteen minutes or so, starting around 1:29:00. (But, really, watch the whole thing!)

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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