Watching a movie can sometimes feel like swimming backstroke. You spend minutes suspended between boredom and curiosity—Why won’t the sky move?—until you stop thinking and become something else, a rhythm. It’s curious how the best films can make us feel out of breath, out of shape. You can’t go looking for this particular feeling, a kind of soreness. You know it only when you walk out of the theater; your perceptions feel like they’ve been taken apart, and the world rings like a migraine.
Being out of shape, my grandmother tells me, is a young person’s feeling. It stops when you no longer expect yourself to be in shape. This, coming from an eighty-five-year-old woman who regularly trounces the sixty-year-olds at her local Ping-Pong championship is, frankly, a little rich. But I repeat her words to myself sometimes, after I’ve left a treadmill or a person, and the ache won’t go away. Perhaps time does sculpt our relation to tenderness, which, for such a fleeting, dull feeling, tells us so much about our expectations. Whether in the tear and repair of muscle fibers, or an affair of the heart, an ache is proof that our attachments are ambivalent, that we believe in the enduring shape of things, but also in their ability to change.
APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL’S Syndromes and a Century begins with a shot of a man who we learn later is in a desperate kind of love. He is waiting for his beloved Dr. Toey to finish conducting an interview in her office with another man. Dr. Toey asks her interviewee: “Do you prefer triangles, squares, or circles?” Circles, he says. “What color?” Clear, clear like a glass. A few questions later, she asks: “What does DDT stand for?” Is it the pesticide? he asks. After an awkward pause, he answers: “Destroy Dirty Things.” She stares at him, and starts scribbling on a notepad. “Or is it Deep Down to You?” he adds, softly. We start, then, with shapes, which leads us to a fork in the road. Down one path, destruction. Down the other, a reach toward you.
Why is Weerasethakul so fascinated with shapes and splits? One easy answer: it’s what movies are made of, a thing moving on screen, and the cut. This answer feels too simple, perhaps because the cut seems to be internal to the movements of Weerasethakul’s shapes—his many bodies—from the disabled, the godly, and the ghostly, to the bodybuilder and the creaturely. And everything in Syndromes and a Century, like that of its precursor Tropical Malady, is split in two parts: in the country and the city, the past and the present, a man and a woman. We cannot escape a few questions: What does one part have to do with the other? And why does the relationship matter?
Or, what’s the difference, we ask, returning to the fork between “Destroy Dirty Things” and “Deep Down to You.” This is a lovelorn teenager’s question, which Weerasethakul takes very seriously. (“I feel as if my heart’s on fire. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep,” the waiting man tells Dr. Toey eventually, burying his head in his arms on a picnic table.) Pop songs take center stage in most of Weerasethakul’s films, because it’s an art that understands, perhaps above all else, that longing for someone can make you feel as though you can—or must—destroy habits, comforts, accustomed shapes, to embrace a “you.” As the Cocteau Twins phrased it: You’re the match of Jericho that will burn this whole madhouse down. But the madhouse doesn’t burn down in his films; instead, the fire is made to flicker and to wait.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW, the doctors get up, and we hear them chatting as the camera zooms slowly to a window, where we see manicured green fields, a little house, the forest tree line. We stay on this image as the doctors walk away from what we see, and we continue to hear their conversation, crystal clear: about hospital equipment, a potential date. As our radius of hearing walks away from us, we feel our body pulled apart, inhabiting two places at once. Whose perception should we follow—whoever or whatever is staring out the window, or the conversation that is going on elsewhere? Then we hear a man cursing that he forgot to take something off his pants—presumably a mic. There’s laughter, and someone says it’s only been five takes. We feel the fabric tear again. They are no longer on script; this is the actors’ casual conversation, on which we’re eavesdropping. Suddenly we’re not just two bodies, but more.
If synesthesia collapses the line between the visual and the auditory—if the sound of a bell makes me see lines of gold—then Weerasethakul’s films do the opposite. Our perceptions follow separate threads; we look at a barely moving image while the sound gives us access to another time, perhaps another world. Another way of saying this is that he challenges our relationship to “the environment.” Instead of a lush green that is just background for human actors, here the field is all we see for a good two minutes. It does not represent unbridled nature, which has been there before us and will outlast us long after; the field has clearly been cultivated. But the field does not get any prettier the longer we stare at it. The point is not for us to stare at the gentle green as landscape. It exists not as background, entertainment, threat, or even context (“this is the view outside of the hospital”) but rather as an anchor, something that allows us to feel our own splitting. With these perceptive splits, Weerasethakul’s environments transform from views into visions. A view is meant to be taken in, to be accessible to everybody in a space. A vision—whether it be a trance, a dream, a miracle, an epiphany—cannot be shared with others, now or perhaps never.
You can’t own a vision, in other words, though you can try to make sense of it. And the protagonists of Weerasethakul’s films struggle to share their visions with one another. Of course they do; it’s almost a prerequisite of longing, to want others to see as you do. (The waiting man eventually gets Dr. Toey to hear him out. “Are you trying to torment me?” he asks. “Have you ever been in love?” In return, Dr. Toey tells him a story about meeting a man who grew orchids.) But because the characters have little control over their visions, sometimes they don’t see the world that is magically corresponding to their tales. In one scene, Dr. Toey has a picnic with an older woman at the orchid man’s farm, who tells her a story about thieves in a solar eclipse. No matter what we do, the woman says, “something always watches us.” The sky, gradating from a daisy blue to the darkest ink and then back again, has shaped itself to her words, but the older woman has begun to doze off.
Weerasethakul shows us the allure of passion—of sharing a singular vision—but keeps it at bay. There’s a particular violence in trying to make others see exactly as you do, so characters witness their own visions, alongside one another. Conversations, therefore, work by sidetracks, wanderings, and deflections. Joyous moments are found not by getting wrapped up in doing something together, but by sitting next to a friend or a lover, talking with and past each other, and leaving the shape of things up in the air. After the eclipse, the older woman starts to talk to Dr. Toey about love. “Just let him know your true feelings, or you might miss out.” Dr. Toey laughs. “He does smell nice,” she says. “But sometimes, I just want to be alone.”
THE PLACES WHERE we feel most split and unshaped—and put into shape—are, in Weerasethakul’s films, jungles and hospitals. These seem to be opposites: the hospital a blinding white, the jungle
an “impenetrable” dark. We associate the hospital with order, while the jungle is thought to be where order ceases to operate, where monsters live. But for Weerasethakul, whose parents were doctors in Khon Kaen, the jungle and the hospital are both sources of comfort. He writes in an essay: “When I make a film I can’t resist going into the forest where the rancid ghosts are because it makes me feel safe.” And about his first film outside Thailand, Memoria: “I first went around hospitals, because I am comfortable in that space.”
There’s a wry smile behind these words, one that knows their effect; safety for him is not cocoa and a fireplace, but rather the hushed quiet of a hospital morgue. “It brings back memories of my childhood, seeing sick or dying people,” he said in 2005. “But I am also very interested in the hospitals—Thai hospitals—and how class and power are reflected in them, the authority of the doctors and submissiveness of the patients.” This desire for comfort—insulation, softness, warmth—meets the sharp observation of structural forces. To attend to one is to see the other.
Hospitals and forests are also, as horror films tell us, where ghosts emerge. Ghosts and gods walk among the mortal folk in Weerasethakul’s films. They introduce themselves casually, like, Don’t mind me, I’m a thousand years old. The word haunt doesn’t work as a verb for his spirits. Ghosts in Korean or
Japanese movies scare us with how they shriek, aggrieved in sepia, how they’ve altered their earthly shape—or how they can bend out of shape—but Weerasethakul’s ghosts just stare at you, almost bored. They sit at dinner tables; they nibble on fruit. His people have a bit of ghost in them. In daily conversations, lives on different timelines are discussed like one would a routine. Which moisturizer do you use for skincare? What were you in your past life? Because everyone believes in a past life—and a next—they are less afraid of ghosts, a terror that stems from the irreversibility of life and death. To split from ourselves, it turns out, is not as frightening as we might think.
SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY is famous for, among other things, being one of the first films censored in Thailand after the military coup in 2006. Weerasethakul refused to cut the four scenes that had provoked the censors: a doctor, after a long day, pulling out a bottle of alcohol hidden in a prosthetic leg; a monk hanging out with friends, strumming a guitar; two monks playing with a toy UFO; and a
doctor making out with his girlfriend, followed by a close-up on his erection.
Nature, in most films, works as a setting for human action. When nature takes center stage, we take the position of a tourist, reveling in the range of colors and textures of plants and flowers, the stimulation provided by crisp plenitude. In Weerasethakul’s hands, however, the environment is not something that can be grasped whole as a pretty picture. His films pull our eyes and ears apart, and his depictions of nature scramble what we can expect to see and hear. Unlike nature as postcard or idyll—composed, distant—his trees are like his ghosts, those who surround and exist alongside us, shifting their limbs, listening.
Censorship regulates the circulation of images, and attempts to control their effects. This ambition—to control the visually unruly—might come from the instrumental attitude we take toward nature, our recognition of its power and our desire to shape it to our will. All this, however, becomes unraveled when nature is no longer just an image. There is a reason why the scenes the censorship board selected feel inconsistent; Weerasethakul was not asked to excise the sound. Perhaps what the censors feared most was not some liberatory power of Weerasethakul’s images—as though seeing his film would increase the population of drunk doctors and leaping monks—but the ethos that permeates them, of being split apart, of being able to hear the call and feel the pull of another place, while staying attached to what is before one’s eyes. Censorship can be arbitrary, but it cannot be ambivalent.
To be ambivalent, then, is to swim out and drift, to let the sky stop above as the tide lulls you into forgetting which way is shore. Watching Weerasethakul’s films, it is quite difficult to know when a scene will stop, or when the film might end. Syndromes and a Century ends with a crowd of middle-aged people engaging in aerobics on the hospital grounds. Scenes of people exercising or dancing are like a rhyme that links all of Weerasethakul’s films; there’s always a cut to people hopping up and down in unison, swinging and bopping, following an instructor. When you do aerobics, like most dancing or political rallies, you feel like you’re part of a bigger body—the movement unites you, briefly. You’re moving to the same music, feeling the same twinges your neighbors are feeling. But instructors and students are delayed mirrors; there’s a second or two of a collapse in formation, as the instructor moves from one repetitive sequence to the next. The students are still moving, but no longer matching.
Perhaps aerobics are the answer to the question of what happens after a split. There’s terror and joy in that disorder of catch-up, a small window in which people find themselves in rhythmic shapelessness. We mill in a suspension of routine before everyone starts to resemble each other once again. Can that brief shambles be saved? Weerasethakul seems to say it can be, that this slight hitch is built between our rhythms. A few seconds before the very end, a little boy toddles into the dancing fray, holding a popsicle. He doesn’t know which way is front, but feels the fun of pumping his arms like everyone else, in joining the swooping and swinging movements. The boy lets the beat take him, and the last thing we see are his arms flinging wide, letting go of all direction.
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