Syndromes is explicitly ordered as a diptych, repeating the same core scenario with wildly different spatial, aesthetic and narrative context.
After Tropical Malady radically elevated Apichatpong Weerasethakul to the forefront of millennial art directors, Syndromes and a Century doubled down on that film’s sense of simultaneous naturalism and oneiric transcendentalism, as well as its bifurcated structure. Syndromes is explicitly ordered as a diptych, repeating the same core scenario with wildly different spatial, aesthetic and narrative context. Yet where Tropical Malady gradually established its strange mood, Joe here foregrounds the bold developments in his direction using his rarely moving camera to nonetheless highlight the constant sense of the film slurring into a new dimension.
After a pillow shot looking up at tree canopies as hypnotic, ambient music moans in pulses of sound, we meet Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) as he is interviewed for a position at a country hospital by Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul), who asks him a series of innocuous questions about his job history and interests before shifting to odder, more abstract categories like his favorite shapes or drawing implements. The slide into strange non sequiturs is amusing, not only for its own sake, but also in the subtle way it pokes fun at more traditional job interview questions for their equal inadequacy in evaluating a person’s fitness for a job or work environment.
Tellingly, the first person seen in the film is neither Nohng nor Toey but Toa (Nu Nimsomboon), whose anxious face is seen in medium close-up before Joe cuts to Nohng facing the camera for his interview. Toa is mostly forgotten in the subsequent interview as the camera remains rooted on Nohng, but when Toey hands the newly arrived doctor his first assignment, the frame cuts out to show the man sitting in the room, nervously awaiting for Toey to be finished with the new hire. Toa finally stands up and approaches the doctor, and it is obvious from his shuffling body language and hunched face that he has a crush on her. He hands the doctor a gift, unable to make eye contact with her, and as he attempts to make conversation he holds his hands in front of him like a first-grader reciting something at the front of the class. Or, perhaps more accurately, like a teenager hiding an uncontrollable erection.
Toa’s infatuation with the blatantly disinterested Toey is the first of the film’s views of unrequited love, each one approaching the subject from a different angle that shares a common frustration with mixed signals and poor communication of desire. Joe’s aesthetic approach, using abrupt cuts to clashing camera angles to disrupt the lulling effects of his long static takes and ethereally gliding tracking shots, generates a subtle sense of confusion that can sometimes make two linked shots set in the same space feel completely disconnected. The director brings that discombobulating effect to the characters’ reflections on thwarted love, as when Toa finally confronts Toey with a blunt declaration of love, only for her to lead him aside and begin reminiscing about her own unreciprocated crush from long ago, at which point the film cuts so casually into flashback that it’s easy to think that the film had just moved on. Toey, gentle but self-aware with Toa, is seen to be flighty and tongue-tied around Noom (Sophon Pukanok), a florist who ultimately interprets her chaste fears of being too forward with platonic friendliness and confides in her about his own crush.
Joe approaches each nested narrative of desire with visual detachment that exacerbates feelings of vulnerability. He often films emotionally devastating blows in long shot so that the awful negative space around a person who has just exposed themselves is all the more, emphasizing that they cannot hide from the awkward disinterest of the person they love. Yet the film approaches more than just one-sided romantic love, and Joe’s oblique visual strategy leaves plenty of room for digressions, as in a gorgeous extended sequence that follows a local dentist’s (Arkanae Cherkam) night-time relaxation, from playing music to taking a long, slow stroll back to his office in pitch-black night illuminated only by the beacons of fluorescent lights. The man’s oneiric evening, with its balance of rustic charm and, in the dentist’s office, modern machinery, is the fulcrum separating the two halves of the film’s movements, but even for its own sake it suggests a liminal space between present reality, memory and dream that epitomizes Joe’s method.
The dentist’s gradual traipse from countryside idyll back to his empty, cold office prefigures a leap to an urban setting the replays the core narrative to the point, swapping out the rural location for a modern metropolis. The hospital thus shifts from a small area open to elements to a giant facility with up-to-date technology and blinding white paint that connotes sterility. Immediately, Joe conveys the alienation of modern life, and he compounds that sense of disconnect when he begins to replay scenes from the film’s first half but from different angles, so that Toey is now the one facing the camera as Nohng is interviewed, or how a long-winded monk is now shown where before his monologue was delivered with his back to the camera. Some roles are even gender-swapped, literalizing a sense of displacement without resorting to lectures about cell phones or overcrowding other standbys of urban, contemporary commentary.
The biggest tonal shift of the second half, though, occurs in the tracking of Nohng’s relationship with heretofore unseen girlfriend Joy (Jarunee Saengtupthim). Where earlier shows of love involved nervous crushes, here we see two people nearing the limits of their affection but unable to admit to each other that they have drifted apart. What links the two forms of non-communicative love (apart from a hilarious callback to Toa’s earlier hand placement in Nohng’s visible erection after making out with Joy) is the inability of characters to simply speak their feelings. This issue spans locations and time periods, but Syndromes and a Century does suggest that the problem is made worse by the distancing effect of technology, which aggravates and further enables our most insular, secretive aspects. The film allegorizes this with one of its final shots, which uses as its summarizing avatar of technological creep not phones or computers but the baffling, terrifying image of an industrial vacuum sucking poison gas out of a room. As mist swirls around the vacuum’s huge, black maw, the camera drifts toward the tear in the fabric of space-time as if caught in its pull, drawn to self-annihilation in a poetic but nonetheless brutal evocation of dead-end technological isolation in the new century.