These are the last ten minutes of the movie ‘Syndromes and a Century’ (Sang Sattawat, 2006) by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The movie is mainly located in two hospitals: one in rural Thailand and and the other in Bangkok. The geographical distance between these locations is further emphasized by the temporal divide that separates the two parallel yet interconnected narratives: the Bangkok medical centre is representing the present and the rural hospital is set 40 years in the past. Throughout the film, Weerasethakul makes various references to Buddhist visual culture, iconography and theology such as reincarnation and an after life. The viewer is becoming an unwitting participant to the belief that life is lived in cycles as scenes set in the past are, towards the second part of the movie, repeated with uncanny similarity in the present. By this stage, the viewer is entranced by Weerasethakul’s meditation on the ambiguous division between past and present, life and death.
The closing scene of ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is set in the Bangkok hospital: the harsh fluorescent lighting and the formal symmetry of the hallways are emphasizing the reality of living in a modern city. Somehow lost in this maze of corridors and hallways appears an elderly lady sitting at a desk. In the next shot, the movie cuts to a young woman exiting a door. The sound of the door banging in the frame and the woman’s heels clicking on the linoleum floor penetrate the otherwise monotone background music. The same door opens again shortly after and a young man sheepishly enters the hallway. This ambiguous and rather hidden reference to a possible sexual encounter between two doctors in the basement of the hospital also underlines the difficulties of working under strict censorship laws in Thailand. When the movie was released in Thailand, censors demanded that a total of four scenes should be edited out: one showed doctors consuming alcohol, another showed doctors kissing.
As the music intensifies, the camera documents a patient seemingly lost in the hallways and a member of staff daydreaming at her desk. As the camera pulls away from the desk, the viewer is invited to join the director on a meditative and hypnotic exploration in visual culture. Set in a smoke filled room in the basement, the camera turns in a circular motion as it depicts the harsh fluorescent lighting mounted on the ceiling. A drilling machine briefly shown in the corner of the room is emphasizing the point of this hypnotic scene as the director wishes to penetrate the viewer’s mind. The camera then slowly focuses on a vent that is ominously sucking in the smoke filling the room. As the smoke is being sucked through the vent, the spectator as well is closing in on the vent via the tracking shot. Here, the director engages in a visual analogy by substituting the smoke with the gaze of the spectator. The vent isn’t as much sucking smoke, rather, it’s sucking our gaze. By holding that shot for a considerable length, it appears that Weerasethakul insists on displacing, confusing even alienating the viewer. The mise-en-scène creates a position of vulnerability and even hauntedness.
Despite appearing to break from cinematic conventions, some comparisons for this key scene in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ can be made in global cinema. The hypnotic music for instance is strongly reminiscent of a movie by David Lynch – a director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is often compared to. More specifically in reference to the tracking shot, Jean-Luc Godard for instance made inventive use of it, most famously in ‘Contempt’ (1963) or ‘Weekend’ (1967). Other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’ (1972) or Martin Scorsese in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) appear to use Godard’s method of tracking the camera quite unexpectedly away from the cinematic narrative. In these cases, rather than following the plot, the viewer is forced to follow the vision of the filmmaker. In ‘Frenzy’, the camera moves away from a door to an apartment in anticipation of the suspense hidden from the viewer unfolding inside the apartment. In ‘Taxi Driver’, Robert de Niro talks on the phone with his girlfriend as the camera slowly moves away from him, focusing on an empty hallway that de Niro is yet to enter. Here the tracking shot helps to foretell a narrative that is yet to unfold.
It is the hypnotic character of the tracking shot in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ however that appears to have very few cinematographic precedents in global cinema (an exception might be Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ from 2006 where a long shot shows a prison guard scrubbing the floor). Rather than guiding the viewer through the plot of the movie, the point of the hypnotic tracking shot is to create a complete visual and narrative break. It becomes the visual equivalent of an exclamation mark. By the time the smoke sucking vent is shown in ‘Syndromes and a Century’, the viewer has already suspended all preconceived ideas what the experience of cinema should be. While the cinematography could be read with reference to a Buddhist signifying system (the smoke might refer to incense symbolic for the fragrance of pure moral conduct), I believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wishes to literally pull the viewer into his world, no matter what their belief system might be. In a sense, the hypnotic tracking shot is more about the art of cinema than it is about the film itself. This playfulness, an aspect Weerasethakul inherited from his practice as exhibiting experimental film artists, allows us to re-consider the parameters of global cinema which is, rather than merely depicting a story, first and foremost a visual experience.