Syndromes and a Century (15)

If you relish the rare thrill of cinema striking out into the unknown, don't miss Apichatpong's latest offering
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The Independent Culture

When Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both died in late July, it was inevitable that some British commentators would rush to air their scepticism about these high-falutin' foreigners. The most prominent was Jeremy Paxman, with his dismissal of Bergman on Newsnight: "He wasn't exactly box-office." Well, he wasn't, not by Transformers standards, though I dare say the financiers of The Seventh Seal have seen a healthy return since 1957. But trust Paxo to put these arty types in their place: no doubt he'll display the same delicacy when it comes to valedictories for, say, Harold Pinter and John Updike ("Didn't give JK Rowling many sleepless nights, did he?")

It's hard to defend the late film-makers, and the kind of work they represented, without using the term "art cinema" – a red rag to those who believe that film shouldn't have the temerity to be anything other than disposable entertainment. As Paxman's disdain shows, there's widely perceived to be an unbridgeable divide between "cinema" and "art cinema": that is, between English-language cinema and anything with subtitles; between cinema which is fun and cinema which isn't; or (and this is what it really boils down to) cinema that makes money and cinema that doesn't.

This week's releases make nonsense of these distinctions. The high-profile Hollywood romp, from Quentin Tarantino, is slow, talky, pedantic and lacking the faintest glimmer of surprise (although my co-reviewer disagrees: see below). Meanwhile, two foreign-language releases – among the year's "artiest" – are totally unexpected, packed with stylistic invention and unfamiliar pleasures.

Syndromes and a Century is the new feature by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who had a cult hit of sorts with the supernatural homoerotic reverie Tropical Malady (2004). His new film is just as strange, but in ways I can't easily explain. It feels surreal and oddly mystical, although it barely shows you anything out of the ordinary: it's set in hospitals, dentists' surgeries, parks and recreation grounds. Yet it's indefinably out of this world.

The film begins in a rural Thai hospital, where a young female doctor, Toey, interviews a young intern, then gently tries to discourage an unrequited suitor. She tells him of her past love for a handsome orchid-grower, but her story leads nowhere: before long, the action starts over again, with Toey inducting the same doctor, this time in a chilly, hyper-modern city hospital.

Syndromes doesn't make any obvious comment on the differences between rural and urban living, nor is it clear whether its second part, in the city, takes place after the first, or whether the two are somehow formal variations on each other. Apichatpong's attention glides unpredictably between characters: among them, a singing dentist who makes friends with a young monk; and a elderly woman doctor who keeps a bottle of liquor stashed in a false leg.

Apichatpong claims he was inspired by his parents' first meeting and by his belief in reincarnation. But this doesn't begin to explain his film for me – and that's after seeing it three times. Syndromes is blessed with a fanciful, idiosyncratic grace: in one scene, Apichtapong unexpectedly tracks sideways to reveal a middle-aged woman beaming at us, as if she just happened to be there and he simply moved his camera by way of saying hello. In another shot, the camera gazes long and deep into the mouth of a funnel sucking up smoke. Why? I have no idea – but it's the single most bewitching screen image I've seen recently.

And while the film appears to evoke the sort of urban dystopia that you associate with Antonioni, it's predominantly concerned with ordinary happiness: the sort people find in conversation, chance encounters, workplace snogs, and aerobics. Yes, aerobics: and the final shot, with its bubblegum disco soundtrack, will leave you utterly elated, if none the wiser.

Apichatpong season at BFI Southbank, London, to 30 Oct

Further viewing Apichatpong's balmy delight 'Blissfully Yours' (Second Run DVD)