“Syndromes and a Century”

I have only seen seven or eight Thai movies. The four that I like least have all been made by writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the only Thai film-maker to garner international art-house attention. Like Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and to a degree Hong Kong director Wong Kar-War). I suspect masochism as at least part of the explanation for the favor he has found with critics.

Mysterious Object at Noon”  (Dokfa nai meuman, 2000) is very opaque; I’m not sure anything happens in it. “Tropical Malady (Sud pralad, 2004) is mystifying: something happens in each of its two halves, but I’m not sure what. “Syndromes and a Century” (Sang sattawat, 2006) makes some sense. There are some menacing shots of movement through the forest and clouds massing in “Blissfully Yours,” but I’m quite sure that little happens (except for some sex). Little happens at a very leisurely pace — a pace that makes snails seem like speed demons.

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The prolonged opening scene of a medical consultation with a female Western-medicine physcian looks ahead to “Syndrome,” which focuses on the director’s physician parents. Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) have brought Min (Min Oo) in. He is suffering from a rash. The two women answer the doctor’s questions to him. The younger (Roong) explains that they ran out of the lotion the docor prescribed and show the one she has been rubbing into his irritated skin, which the doctor says has exacerbated the problem.

After Roong leaves to go to work, the older woman (Orn) wheedles for a health certificate for Min. The doctor refuses to provide one — not because Min is too sick to be certified, but because she cannot issue one without some official identification.

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Plot spoiler alert (even though there is practically no plot!

Later, the viewer realizes that Min is not a native speaker of Thai. Although the movie is shot in Weerasethakul’s native northeast (Khon Kaen, in Issan) (and indeed the medical office in the first part is one of his parent’s), Min is an ethnic Karen from Burma (which is west of Thailand). Roong is teaching him to read and write Thai and I cannot tell if he has an accent that would give away his alienness. Roong is paying Orn to get papers for Min, but Min is fired from his job some time around the rolling of the opening credits (nearly 45 minutes into the movie).

Roong drives and drives and drives some more. Some of the time, she rubs lotion into Min’s arm and her own. After what seems an interminable drive, the car moves from paved to unpaved road (but seemingly at the same speed). The lovers set out for their picnic. Min removes his shirt and pants — though I would think that his skin condition would not be helped by contact with leaves and branches in the forest.

Somewhat surprisingly, he knows the way to a scenic overlook. The picnic spread is invaded by red ants. One (only one!) bites Roong.

Cut to a brown male rear humping (and humping and humping — nothing occurs quickly in this movie!). Finally the male finishes and it turns out not to be Min and Roong, but Orn and some never named man. Seemingly this man’s motorcycle is then stolen and instead of walking back on the road, Orn thrashes through the brush.

She spots a surgical mask on the ground. Personally, I would not pick one up if I saw one on the forest floor. And I most certainly would not put it on as she does!

Movie logic is not entirely abandoned, and instead of getting hopelessly lost (or dying from toxins rubbed on the surgical mask or ye olde jungle rot), she finds Min and Roong on a rock at the edge of a shallow river. Roong has just finished fellating Min (at least I think so: it is shot from behind Min and the only sound is flowing water). The fully dressed Roong coaxes the fully dressed Orn into the stream. They cavort and then hold up Min, while rubbing lotion onto his chest (the container is balanced on his belly).syndromes-and-a-century2.jpg

Eventually, they get out of the water. Roong wrings out her wet clothes and places them (in the shade…) to dry and puts on Min’s pants. Orn throws all the picnic good and containers in the stream an lies, steals a cigarette (and money?) and lies on the picnic cloth.

Roong extracts Min’s erect penis from his boxer shorts and fondles it for a while. (This time there is no guesswork/interpretation necessary: it is shot in closeup of her hand and his crotch.) Surely this was censored in Thailand. (“Syndromes and a Century” was never returned from the censorship board though it has no sex and no violence in it.)

The movie ends with a prolonged shot of Min’s right nipple and open armpit and part of Roong’s head not quite touching him.

End of plot spoiler alert (if you didn’t skip it, did you find any plot?)

 

Driving through a Thai town and out through the countryside has some interest, and the substitution of remedies by the patients has some humor — and Min Oo has a very smooth penis when it is extracted and displayed. The American DVD version is sixteen minutes shorter than the Thai theatrical release. I greatly doubt that there is a story that landed on the cutting room floor, and am fairly confident that the Thai verison was even more languid.

There is no music for the thrashing through the forest scenes (or the sex scenes, for that matter). For me, there is not nearly enough there there to merit spending 109 minutes watching. The time spent with Min and the two women trying to help him was not bliss to me. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who earned an MFA at the Chicago Institute of Art) has no interest in entertaining audiences, but also provides practically nothing to stimulate thinking about the setting or situation(s) of the undeveloped characters.

It’s art? Well, it’s “artsy” in the most pejorative sense (pretentious nonsense). It is not ‘artsy” in having beautiful compositions. The compositions and characters and (mumbled) dialog are undistinguished. Occasionally, there are segments of Min’s journal superimposed on the scenes in which nothing is happening, but there is nothing of particular insight in what he writes either!

Neither of the women seem to derive any satisfaction from any of the three sex scenes, though Min also does nothing to indicate enjoyment. He blocks Roong’s first seduction and is asleep or pretending to be asleep when she extracts and hardens his penis jsut before the movie stops.

I mentioned Tsai Ming-Liang at the beginning of my review. I could riff on similarities between his languid voyeuristic portrayals of emotionally inert characters (especially, the three of “Viva l’amour”). There is always a lot of water in Tsai movies, and the last half of “Blissfully Yours” has the river in which all the named characters dip. Those who find Tsai’s films absorbing might enjoy the shots of the women here picking dead skin off Min (and the joyless sexual servicing). I didn’t.

In what is billed as an “introduction” Apichatpong Weerasethakul is engaging (but the talking head is not quite in focus). At least here, he has a story to tell: a sacred tree advising going back to Bangkok for 2 1/2 months when the rains would end.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

 

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