Movies usually go far out of their way to avoid making you think, even when the ostensible point is to “make you think”—every irony or jumping-off point is hand-delivered, underlined and bolded. That makes Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2007 film Syndromes and a Century even more impressive. He not only makes you think, he makes you wonder, in several senses of the word.
Inspired by the story of Weerasethakul’s parents’ courtship, Syndromes begins with a job interview at a rural clinic as girlish but professional Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) asks hangdog Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) which hand he uses for surgery and if he knows what DDT stands for (he guesses “Destroys Dirty Things”). Though the camera remains mostly stationary, its gaze wanders to, among other things, a dentist and a Buddhist monk bonding over their mutual love of music and Dr. Toey inviting a colleague out to lunch, which leads to a blurted marriage proposal and an account of her star-crossed crush on a hunky orchid farmer (Sophon Pukanok). The film then jumps to an urban hospital and restarts, as Dr. Toey once again interviews Dr. Nohng. Same questions, mostly, but different camera angles, and once the interview is over, the lens surveys tippling doctors, tennis-ball-batting patients, and a boner-inspiring clinch. Aspects of the first half of the film repeat (often changed slightly) or are echoed (usually faintly), to be joined by fresh inscrutables. The end.
Syndromes makes no literal sense, but it does so most beguilingly. It’s easy to suspect that the director is playing arty head games (off-camera dialogue at the end of the opening sequence appears to capture the actors, out of character, talking to the director), but Weerasethakul’s film is so deliberate, so beautiful, so mysteriously touching in its small human moments, and so endlessly unpredictable, that it’s hard to care if he is.