In a rural village in 1960s Thailand, a young woman sniffs a bottle of expensive French perfume gifted to her by her military suitor, and then opens a bottle of honey obtained from a rickshaw driver childhood friend and smears some of it onto her face. The honey and the perfume in one sense represent choices between two men but also between two ways of life, one timeless and innocent, and the other violently modern. You could say that each is in its way compromised, the life cycle of bees described by the harvester as he smokes them out of their home, while perfume is perhaps only an attempt to remake what nature had already perfected, but in the end the young woman may come to regret her choice decades later longing only for the tranquility of her childhood home.
Told in fragmentary, non-linear flashes of memory belonging either (it seems) to the heroine, Maem (present day: Prapamonton Eiamchan, 1960s: Thaveeratana Leelanuja), or her husband the unnamed Soldier (present day: Sorabodee Changsiri, 1960s: Wanlop Rungkumjad), Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Anatomy of Time (เวลา) opens with an elderly woman realising the man she has been nursing has died. Picking up a straight razor from a nearby table, she cuts into his thigh and removes what seems to be an ancient bullet, an ironic act of healing which sends us straight back into the past in which the Soldier is part of a militant insurgency that later fails. “How many more must die before you get the nation you want?” a fellow officer asks him, disgusted by his betrayal of a young woman who’d helped them and the implication that they will soon take care of her baby too. The Soldier justifies his actions by insisting that there can either be a fair system under a ruthless leader or else a system full of lies and deception in which the rich exploit the poor. Unconvinced, the officer tells him he’ll have no more part of it, but the Soldier is seemingly too far gone to turn back the bullet in his thigh a symbol of his ongoing corruption.
In subsequent flashbacks, we see the elderly Soldier rejected by the world around him. A nurse hired to care for him, ironically wearing a t-shirt reading “my life is just an old man’s memory”, whispers that she hopes he dies a long and painful death while a local cafe owner throws him out as soon as he, painfully and with great difficulty, sits down unwilling to have a “fascist” in his shop. The older Maem cares for him with great tenderness, though her life cannot have been easy even if their well-appointed home in contemporary Bangkok hints that it was most likely comfortable. Her memories take her back to their courtship, the Soldier young and handsome with his fashionable sunglasses and confident swagger, while she found herself torn by her relationship with the simple local boy Don who took her to see the bees while her outing with the Soldier to what seems to be an almost empty oppressed village eventually turned inexplicably dark and violent. At his funeral only she and another old soldier are present, the man presenting himself as his son (but seemingly not hers) apparently absent.
A conversation with her father had reminded her that as Buddhists they believe that their choices dictate the course of their lives, Maem feeling responsible after Don is beaten up by the military but later it would seem choosing the Soldier anyway. A stand in for her nation, Jakrawal Nilthamrong seems to imply that Maem may have been beguiled by the false promises of modernity falling for a man whose handsome face masked his ruthless violence. At the end of her life she chooses to go back to the rural past, returning to wind the clock at her father’s shop its heart beating once again. Perhaps she regrets her choice, perhaps the Soldier regretted his that left him an outcast, but now all they have are memories as imperfect as they may be with their echoes of other lives and the untapped possibilities of youth. Often beautifully photographed if somewhat obscure, Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s ethereal drama contemplates the legacies of trauma historical and personal while embracing finally the tranquility of life beside a wide river as his elliptical tale concludes with both dream and exit.
Anatomy of Time streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.
Trailer (English subtitles)