Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul may own a moniker the average American cinephile will knot his tongue attempting to speak correctly, but he’s fast becoming this country’s most widely revered, if least properly pronounced, name in art cinema circles. On the crest of festival circuit success and critical favorites like Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, Weerasethakul has carved out a space in international filmmaking resolutely, uncompromisingly his own. On the verge of the release of his fifth feature film, the ethereal Syndromes and a Century, it for once looks as if the hype accompanying a foreign film maestro’s ascendance matches the reality of his talents. When Dennis Lim opened his review of Malady with words of intrepid reverence — “World cinema’s premier maker of mysterious objects, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is on a one-man mission to change the way we watch movies” — it was an understatement: Weerasethakul has already done so.
Weerasethakul’s artistic growth has been remarkable, developing with the assurance of a born visionary. The 37 year old already started turning heads back in 2000 with his feature debut Mysterious Object at Noon. A documentary/fiction hybrid using an “exquisite corpse” mode of storytelling — in which villagers across Thailand add their words to those of preceding villagers — the film was too experimental for box office success in Weerasethakul’s native land but was met with enthusiasm at various festivals around the world. Then came 2002’s Blissfully Yours, a true original that uses elements of the back-to-nature romance to sexually and atmospherically subversive effect. The film won the Un Certain Regard award at that year’s Cannes, garnering relatively large notice, especially for a film of its difficult accessibility, in the States. After the anomalous action-musical spoof The Adventures of Iron Pussy (unreleased and rarely screened here), co-directed with friend Michael Shaowanasai, and several shorts, Weerasethakul made his greatest triumph to date, Tropical Malady, about two gay lovers whose story becomes — or in the second half of the film is retold as — a metamorphic folktale featuring haunted forests and possessed tigers. The film wasn’t without controversy: just as Blissfully divided audiences, so Malady’s premiere at Cannes in 2004 was met with walkouts and jeers as well as fervent admiration. This critic was in attendance for its U.S. premiere, where the walkouts were similarly plentiful and audience reception ranged from ecstatic to bored. Nevertheless Weerasethakul continued to bask in the critical community’s effusive praise, with Malady coming in at number six in the Village Voice’s 2005 critic’s poll and deemed the best film of 2004 by Cahiers du Cinéma.
Syndromes and a Century won’t likely mend the rift between audiences and critics’ views of Weerasethakul. In fact, it’ll most likely exacerbate it. As foreign film audiences veer toward the middle of the road, choosing in greater numbers Pan’s Labyrinth over challenging fare like Regular Lovers (even while once controversial classics like Antonioni sell out at BAM due to their canonical infallibility), forward-thinking innovators like Weerasethakul become more and more the ignored picks of selective critics. Understandably: Weerasethakul’s sensibility encompasses several of the experimental tenets of modern narrative filmmaking, making his movies manna to the art house hardcore and head-scratchers to most other audiences. Like Tsai Ming-Liang (The Wayward Cloud) and Hou Hsaio-Hsien (Three Times), Weerasethakul deemphasizes plot momentum, shooting action — often punctuated by awkward moments of dead time — in extended long takes and creating serene moving portraits that heighten the senses by making each movement, sound, and change in light a miraculous occurrence. Weerasethakul doesn’t just slow things down, he literally takes his sweet time — not for nothing do the opening credits of his films appear, to one’s shock and discomfort, one or two reels in.
And it’s a risky equation, but Weerasethakul’s cinema could be likened to a Buddhist version of David Lynch’s. Where Lynch’s last decade of Hollywood death traps obsessively investigate the narcissistic seduction of the dream screen’s ensnaring identity-splintering illusionism by splintering the narrative itself — forcing viewers to question the very ontology of the cinematic experience — Weerasethakul similarly flips worlds inside out in order to reincarnate his quotidian wanderers into their possible magical ideals. Mysterious Object at Noon goes off on its own collaboratively developed tangent to trace the connections between real conditions and fantasy; Tropical Malady feigns a projector malfunction to disrupt its coherent love story, only to resume with the same actors in different but related guises.
Syndromes might be Weerasethakul’s most boggling film yet. Like Tropical Malady, Syndromes is divided into two distinct sections that both connect to and echo one another; but unlike the previous film the relations between the two sections are as thematically oblique as they are immediately recognizable. The first half takes place in the Thai countryside, where a young female doctor, Dr. Toey interviews a former military doctor, Nohng, about a position at the hospital where she works. Another man, Toa, follows Toey around begging for attention until he finally tells her he loves her. This occasions a story from Toey about her first love. In flashback we learn of her flirtations with Noom, a botanical expert who adopts a rare wild orchid from the hospital grounds. Meanwhile, in a separate plot strand, the hospital’s dentist Dr. Ple becomes attracted to one of his patients, a young monk, Sakda, who he believes might be the reincarnated version of his brother.
The second half contains many of the same events in the first, only transposed to an urban setting. Toey interviews Nohng again, but this time we follow Nohng as he transverses the antiseptic, fluorescent-lit hospital’s subterranean ward where he meets two older women, one of whom tries to practice chakra healing on a strange young man suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Later on, Nohng meets up with his girlfriend Joy, who suggests he ask for a transfer to a new development area.
While not as overwhelmingly provocative and stunning as Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, Syndromes’ limited, repeated events touch on universes of ideas and feeling. Like Lynch, Weerasethakul is earnestly concerned with love; Syndromes not only alludes to the love story of Weerasethakul’s parents (which he states most directly inspired him), but also to contrasting environments, opposing elements in nature, in the metaphorical link between physical illness and the physical changes brought on with the onset of romantic love, in the memories that mold the present into the past. With somnambulant rhythms, enveloping ambient sound, and frequently inserted oddities (sudden tracking shots, inserts of solar eclipses, liquor stored in prosthetic limbs, the rubbing of crotches) that jolt the viewer out of reverie and into an unsettling, indeterminate state of being, all aspects of Weerasethakul’s cinema shape it into an aural and visual field of the recaptured senses. It’s difficult to tell if Weerasethakul’s characters have achieved enlightenment, but even if they haven’t they still harbor a sensitivity, both to their environment and their inner lives, which the director clearly hopes to affect. Whether of cinematic content, characters’ existences, or challenged viewing habits, reincarnation becomes a state that must be earned. Subtly persuasive, Weerasethakul’s strategy is inviting, not divisive. From the natural world with its eerie eclipses and plants that lack “form and order,” to the man-made world with its futuristic, institutional corridors and otherworldly objects like intake vents, the world can be renewed simply, as Stan Brakhage once put it, through the act of seeing with one’s own eyes. •