Thursday, April 12, 2007

THAI CINEMA: Syndromes And A Century—Bifurcations & Other Edits


This entry is dedicated to Jason Sanders.

In that brief space between the glass surface of a mirror and its silvery, metallic, amalgam backing courses the mercurial intelligence that informs Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's cinematic vision. That mercurial "inbetween" space is the acute hinge that joins Joe's characteristic bifurcations of narrative structure. It is that third thing that turns two wings into flight.

In the spirit of bifurcation—whether shifting from documentary to fiction, city to country, from the consensualities of daylight to the individual transgressions of nightfall, bridging the illusory gap between past and present—within the spirit of the subject and its inverted and reflective objectivity (is a reflection an object?), I give voice to the looking glass, knowing full well—as I was taught long ago, abandoned by the teacher—that the silent mirror forfeits.

I have a tender affection for Syndromes and a Century. It is a film that means something to me. It is a film that means enough to become a memory. When I learned it was to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and then learned that I had not achieved press accreditation, I worried I would miss out on my chance to see it. Joe dispelled that anxiety by ensuring a will-call ticket in my name. How often does that happen? That a director in some country on the other side of the planet arranges to have you see his film in some city that is home to neither of you? Geography becomes the way we ward off the illusion of space; maps become a fickle fallacy. How Buddhist can a moment (and a memory) become?

While in Toronto I touched base with the film's publicist to pick up the ticket Joe had reserved for me. She offered me the film's press kit and I was tickled by its design: it's a long, thin horizontal volume, cut in half to create two columnar sections read alongside each other. How "Joe"! Complex and whimsical with the reader inbetween.

When Taro Goto offered me the chance to write the program capsule for Syndromes and a Century for this year's San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, I was delighted. The opportunity seemed perfect recompense; but, my love for the film agonized the writing. Those 250 words proved to be some of the most arduous I've ever written. I wanted so much to express the great Buddhist themes hinging the vision of this piece. When the Center's Jason Sanders volleyed with gentle, instructive edits, so that the capsule would be less abstract and more communicative, I was reminded all over again of the particular craft of writing preview capsules for festival programs. I felt mine was a rough gem faceted and burnished to sparkle and shine and I gained a heightened appreciation and respect for editors. Thank you, Jason.

In the spirit of bifurcation, I offer both: the original stone and its edited cousin burnished on the other side of the printed page, which—thin as it might be—remains a mirror.

* * *

This side of the edit: Commissioned as part of the New Crowned Hope project to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century poetically replicates the startling bifurcations of his previous award-winning feature Tropical Malady, imaginatively experimenting with narrative nuances rarely seen in mainstream fare. Divided neatly into two sections—like the separate wings of a bird or a butterfly reliant upon flight to provide both a cohesive reason and resonance—Syndromes reflects on love as the transmigration of souls and on memory as an abiding attachment to place.

Recursively, Syndromes tells two love stories 40 years apart, both set in hospitals, seemingly separate, though mutually referential. Drs. Toey and Nohng, vaguely based on Weerasethakul's recollections of his parents before their marriage, are drawn to each other within an environment of karmic dalliance tempered by the illusion of change. A monk who dreams of being a rock star deejay and a dentist who favors rural love songs likewise act out an ancient attraction in this milieu of reprised associations.

The binary structure of Syndromes suggests a dialectical tension between the past and the present, female and male, the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern, memory and history, even as these dichotomies are depicted as false contrasts guising something far more mysterious and calmly everlasting.


The other side of the edit: Commissioned as part of the New Crowned Hope project to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century continues the poetic and startling dualities of his previous award-winning feature Tropical Malady. Imaginatively experimenting with narrative nuances rarely seen in mainstream fare, Apichatpong divides his new work neatly into two sections, each providing a cohesive reason and resonance to the other to reflect on love, memory and the abiding attachment to place.

Syndromes tells two love stories 40 years apart, both set in hospitals, seemingly separate, though mutually referential. In the first, the doctors Toey and Nohng (vaguely based on Weerasethakul's recollections of his parents) are drawn to each other as if through karmic dalliance. In the second, a monk who dreams of being a rock deejay and a dentist who favors rural love songs act out an ancient attraction, as if through reprised associations.

The two-part structure of Syndromes suggests many things, such as the tension between the past and the present, female and male, the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern, memory and history, but in Apichatpong's graceful direction these dichotomies are soon becalmed by something far more mysterious and everlasting. "Rather," as the London Film Festival wrote, "this Buddhist-minded film invites us to reflect on time, memory, place and the attraction of opposites. It's sometimes very funny, and always deeply, seductively mysterious."

4 comments:

Thai News said...

Thai cinema is full of talents!
Reading your article can but remind me that.

Brian said...

Now that I've seen the film, I can truly appreciate the unenviable difficulty of the task you were entrusted to you. I'm struggling to find any words to describe the ineffable sensations the film provides. Yet you were able to sum it up with grace.

Maya said...

Twasn't easy and--as I hoped to present by dedicating this entry to Jason--twasn't comprehensible until he came along. Heh.

Adam said...

yeah, michael, writing those program notes are always a struggle. And I can second what you said about Jason's editing assistance. He definitely knows how to fix up what you send him for the constraining forum of the festival program.