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Dialogue vs. Duplicity: Notes on Syndromes and a Century & I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

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Dialogue vs. Duplicity: Notes on <em>Syndromes and a Century</em> & <em>I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone</em>

My posture: slouched, a little pooped, but wide-eyed; I ate some semi-sweet chocolate chips on the low and drank water from my Nalgene.

2. This was my first encounter with both filmmakers, a pair whose reputations invariably precede their films in the “art house” film world. While divisive, the lauds usually drown out the dismissals. The Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who goes by “Joe” in English), is the current it-director among critics, mainly for his ability to foreground highbrow aesthetics and formalism without losing a humane sensibility. The Malaysian/Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming-liang, is noted for his obsession with water, his fascination with sexuality (roles, fluid reversals, seemingly inexplicable transgressions), and the preponderance of static long takes. Being a fan of such qualities in film, I thought this spelled, at the least, an invigorating night of film watching. For the most part, I was right.

3. Syndromes and a Century is like hanging out: a breezy conversation punctuated with laughter, perhaps a bit of foreplay (or simply flirting), a few tunes, and some well-warranted smiles. In this framework, it is easy to fall in love with the film. We in the audience sat stunned, rooted to our chairs through the end credits.

4. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone is like going to work: frustrating, rigorous, demanding serious attention for a little longer than expected—and punctuated by some truly odd happenstances. Oh, and some “inappropriate” sexual advances. This is a tough film to love, let alone like, or simply enjoy, on any passive spectator level. Half the crowd was gone when the lights came up.

5. Tsai is easily the more “challenging” director of the pair for me. Yet this is not to belittle the achievements and ambitions of Weerasethakul and his film. Syndromes and a Century is not light cinema, despite its go-nowhere ease: unlike I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, where the camera stays put in each scene, offering only one vantage, the camera moves, and often, in Weerasethakul’s film, but it remains particularly rooted in place, and almost as stubborn as its program-companion. There are stretches where the camera sits still, trained on an actor simply standing, doing nothing but riding an elevator—or other times when it fixes on the back of someone’s head, obscuring a kiss being shared—or there are shots that track ever-slowly from left to right, looking up at idols. In an audacious movement towards the end of the picture, we’re offered a crowded, smoked-in assemblage of machinery that has been likened, by some colleagues, to Kubrick’s 2001 monolith: we track up to a black intake-vent that sucks up smoke, seemingly out of the camera, into its eye of darkness, which stares back at the audience, from dead-center in the screen, for a solid two minutes. But then it shows some monks zip-cording a toy-UFO up into the air—and the finale is pure joyful movement, although restricted to the space of the frame, which sits away from the scene in observation. It could be the vent is indeed an eye, akin to HAL 9000, looking back at the audience; it could be the toy-UFO is above the crowd, watching the calisthenics at the close: surveillance is recalled in these final minutes from earlier in the picture when a character says, “Someone is always watching you.” The camera in Syndromes operates as a surreptitious spectator, surveying the varying landscapes—of trees, of machines, of humans, of emotions—captured. This is not the trope Tsai’s camera embodies. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone stagnates to best exemplify the rot on display: it wants you to feel icky. And it succeeds. Its rigor is, at first glance, merely ingratiating. But its rhythms within its boundaries (the frame, the beds, the homes—all artificial and self-imposed) continue to build as the film plods on so that its final shot achieves the epiphany it shoots for.

6. I saw Syndromes and a Century a second time on Sunday. As the lights came up I thought, “I could watch that film again tomorrow, or any day, forever, but I never want to see the Tsai film again.” (I did not stay for the second half of the program.)

7. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone requires not just patience but fortitude. One hopes such devotion yields a resolution that inspires, or illuminates, and Tsai’s film mostly gets there in its final five minutes. But its path wears one thin as it teeters on the edge of redundancy, and revulsion. Yet I would never recommend walking out. The compositions are flawless—as they should be in this restricted construct—and the sight of people enveloped in smoke, and coughing, trying to fuck under a mosquito net with home-made gasmasks (a plastic bag, a paper bowl) around their necks, is uncannily funny and horrific.

8. My resistance may also be attributed to the fact that I don’t think it was a very well programmed double bill. Rather, as easy (to say obvious) as it is to link the two films (both were commissioned by New Crowned Hope, both are part of the new Asian vanguard, both are about “love” in some fashion or another), I would not program them together because the films do not dialogue. And part of this discrepancy, I fear, lies in the fact that Syndromes and a Century is a much more successful film than I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone. The latter only problematizes its premises whereas the former, oddly, resolves its mysteries by proposing new ones. The new mysteries act in conversation with the earlier ones in Weerasethakul’s film as it is structured around a series of dialogues: past-present, country-city, sunshine-fluorescence, light-dark, man-machine, green-blue, foliage-prosthetics, love-lust, faith-medicine, science-medicine: how do we love one another, and ourselves? How do we heal ourselves? Tsai’s film, on the other hand, proposes a solution that, at bottom, is simply duplicitous, not dialogic: its protagonist does not choose anything, he only takes everything. I’m all for fluid morals that shift terms according to the encounter, but the sleep attained at the close, while a beauty to behold, is transparent, and selfish. And given the finale’s ecstatic accompanying opera soundtrack, the love triangle (and its nodal nexus, the protagonist) is a condoned and complicit spectacle. Still, one might argue I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone does, in fact, ask, “How do we love one another, and ourselves? How do we heal ourselves?” as well as “How do we transcend existential pollution?” My reply would be reiteration: it is not as interested in the answer/s as Syndromes appears, regardless of the fact that Syndromes does not answer, in full, either question posed, while Tsai’s film closes on what could easily be read as its (I’d say facile) synthesis of such resolutions. Despite my limited exposure, and the seeming disconnect between the films, I can see why the two directors might be paired, even if I think this most recent film from Tsai is not the proper match for Weerasethakul’s newest film. I can say that 2001: A Space Odyssey may, indeed, be a more apt choice to share a double bill with Syndromes and a Century, if only for the story their titles tell side by side—and, of course, their respective magic monoliths—and their continually disassembled narratives—and their celebratory, philanthropic finales.

9. I am drawn to films I will not know fully, just as I will not know myself fully. Mysteries will forever eclipse the whole. The delight comes when, in a flash, we can sublime such a logic, and sense the whole, however oblique, in fractions.—For this, I cannot dismiss Tsai’s work: my dialogue with it will continue.—For this, I will continue to seek out the earlier films of both directors, in time.—For this, I thank the work, and our world, and all the inherent mysteries abounding in plain sight or hidden from view.

10. The final exchange in Syndromes and a Century may depict my relationship with I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone. Just as Tsai’s film is obsessed with water, and nature, so too is Syndromes preoccupied with Thailand’s landscape. This comes to the fore when a young woman asks a young man to join her in her move to a new, modern town outside Bangkok. She says, “It’s near the ocean.” He looks out the window they stand in front of and replies, “Do not try to tempt me with nature.” I’m very much drawn to liquids, and their metaphysical significance, but such a trope is not enough to sustain Tsai’s newest film as other concerns eclipse the water theme, like its protagonist’s dual character-actor presence. More intriguing than the film’s relationship with water, here, is its relationship to self-identity. Both roles Lee Kang-sheng plays, however fickle, remain at the mercy of others, to the end: his warmth with one lover is cooled in the face of the other, and vice versa, like switching pillows in the night. His life is incapable of finding root, forever drifting, which is where the final shot comes into play: the love triangle on a bed, afloat in a dark pool, moving aimless across the water. The nature-love conversation comes in flashes, but the spark is dim and painfully delayed, and the threads rather tenuous. It’s frustrating, even if unavoidably compelling. And for this I hope I find one of his films that will better sustain such a theme of liquid temporality. My guess is a movie called The River might live up to that.

House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.