Syndromes and a Century,” the latest self-enclosed cinematic enigma by Thai helmer Apichatpong Weerasethakul, offers sporadically mesmerizing imagery and a miasma-like atmosphere but only fits and starts in the way of plot. Bisected, like Weerasethakul’s previous pics “Blissfully Yours” and “Tropical Malady,” action revolves around assorted characters working at or visiting two provincial Thai hospitals. Pic lightly brushes against notions of memory, love and reincarnation and will no doubt have the small but loyal clique of Apichatpong fans stroking their chins at fests, but theatrically, “Syndromes” would get the B.O. bends as anything other than a niche release.
Pic reps one of several film projects backed by the New Crowned Hope festival initiated and funded by the city of Vienna as part of the celebration marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. However, any connection found in “Syndromes and a Century” to the works or life of Mozart would be entirely coincidental, as such a venture was never the aim of the filmmakers in the first place.
Even so, at a stretch pic’s structure could be described as somewhat fugue-like with its play of repetitions with variations. For instance, pic’s opening scene takes place in a hospital office where young femme Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) asks army-trained Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) not just why he studied medicine, but whether he has any pets and to explain what DDT stands for (“Destroy Dirty Things?” he suggests).
Halfway through the movie, the same thesps do the scene all over again with slightly different dialogue in another hospital room, only this time the camera is trained more on Toey’s face than on Nohng’s.
Several other scenes are likewise reprised, but each time the dominant mood of the second variation is cooler, brisker and less intimate. Perhaps explaining this tonal shift, the helmer comments in the press notes that the first half of the film is “for his mother, and the second for my father.” (Both parents were doctors.)
Nevertheless, like Apichatpong’s other features, “Syndromes” defiantly resists easy interpretation. Despite the presence of various colorful characters — a monk who wants to be a DJ (Sakda Kaewbuadee, an Apichatpong regular); a dentist who sings (Arkanae Cherkam) — pic teeters just on the edge of abstraction, especially given the helmer’s fondness for holding for long, beautifully composed takes that drink in sun-dappled landscapes, corridors and statues.
One hypnotic shot observes a funnel simply sucking in smoke for what seems like minutes as the soundtrack (creepily designed by Shimizu Koichi) grumbles and throbs ominously.
By the end, nothing much has happened, but all the same, pic casts a witchy kind of spell with its deep-breath pacing and undertow of unspecified malaise.