‘Don’t tempt me with nature’, young Dr Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) tells his girlfriend when she suggests moving out of the city. The natural world is always a beguiling presence in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, though ‘Syndromes and a Century’ – created under the banner of Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope festival – offers equally captivating, if less relaxing, glimpses of mechanical subjects. For each leisurely, tranquil shot of a forest composed in half a dozen shades of green, there’s a stack of artificial limbs or the weird sight of dust being sucked from a room by an industrial pump.
Like Apichatpong’s last two features, ‘Blissfully Yours’ and ‘Tropical Malady’, ‘Syndromes…’ offers two incarnations of the same tale, this time a sort of romance with a medical setting. (It’s roughly based on the early working lives of the director’s parents, both doctors.) The two parts share certain set-ups – entertaining interview scenes involving Nohng’s recruitment and an ageing monk’s check-up, for instance – but in other ways they diverge entirely. This formal structure allows for the exploration of a series of gentle oppositions, between female and male perspectives, rural and urban settings, natural and artificial light, fixed and mobile camerawork.
Apichatpong’s sensuous, impressionistic approach draws out the enervating and tranquilising effects of bureaucracy, invites sympathy and humility for all (from a singing dentist to a senior doctor with an innovative hiding place for hooch), and makes an open secret of the filmmaking process itself. To watch it is to feel the fuzzing of the boundaries between memory, happiness and cinema.