By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

by the time it gets darkAnocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง.Dao Khanong), bills itself as an exploration of a traumatic moment from the recent past but quickly subverts this conceit for a wider meditation on the veracity of cinema. Beginning in a manner typical of indie-leaning Thai films, Anocha gently undercuts herself as her images prism into their separate “realities”, informing and commenting on each other but perhaps not fully interacting. The Thammasat University student massacre of 1976 is the dark genesis of this fracturing future, but it’s also in the process of becoming a collective legend, cementing a “historical truth” as cultural currency even whilst expunged from the history books, leaving its young lost in a black hole of memory from which they are powerless to emerge.

A young woman welcomes an older one to a remote country villa. The younger woman treats the older with respect, talks up the merits of the house and insists she take the larger upstairs room. The younger woman, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a 30-something filmmaker who has invited the older woman, Teaw (Rassami Paoluengtong) – a former student protest leader turned respected writer,  for a prolonged interview period she hopes to use as research for a film about the events of 1976. Ill equipped to cope with the weight of her grim investigation, Ann begins to slip into something like a nervous breakdown filled with strange visions culminating in a forest chase in which she follows the figure of a young girl in a bear suit, eventually falling into a grove next to a strange sparkly mushroom.

Anocha takes us on an odyssey through contemporary Thailand all the while holding 1976 in the back of the frame. From Ann we jump to Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), whom we meet as a tabacco farmer only to realise he’s also a much lusted after singer/actor/model with a complicated love life and media set friends. Peter’s story seems unrelated but then it turns out he might be up for a part in Ann’s movie (written for him, in director speak at least as one of his less tactful friends points out), but more than that they’re connected by the shadowy figure of an invisible working class woman, Nong (Atchara Suwan), whom we first met serving coffee to Ann and Teaw at a rural bar but now switches between waitressing at a country club, bussing at riverboat diner, and cleaning toilets at a gym. Unseen as it is, it is her private revolution which ultimately forces a cinematic reset as the screen dissolves into dizzying disruption only to morph into the true beauty of Thailand’s untouched natural vistas.

Ann intends to film “a drama of sorts” about the events of 1976. An early scene exposes Anocha’s more subtle motive as Ann stages a reconstruction of an act of state brutality. Students lie on their bellies, stripped of their shirts and with hands tied behind backs while soldiers with guns bark at them to keep their faces on the floor. We think this is a flashback – an objective capture of objective truth, but we’re wrong, this is a scene from Ann’s movie and it takes a few liberties with the tale later told by Teaw in which she talks about seeing her fellow students in a similar situation on but a football pitch rather than an indoor hanger. Similarly, we get the first scene again half way through with slightly different lines as two entirely different actresses inhabit the roles of Ann and Teaw. The house is now more opulent, the women more conventionally beautiful and elegantly dressed. We film “the truth”, but we can’t help “colour correcting” it towards that which seems prettier than the way we really view things.

“The truth” is a similarly difficult concept to pin down. Ann is fascinated by the massacre but from her rather privileged, largely apolitical viewpoint she can’t quite understand it. She asks Teaw banal questions about her student life – boyfriends, her parents, the gradually unfolding horror of it all. In one particularly tone deaf moment, she marvels at Teaw as a piece of “living history” – a first hand witness to the (failed) revolution. No, Teaw tersely points out, she is merely “a survivor”. Tellingly, Teaw’s early monologues do not quite tally with her later ones, but asked on her current views towards her past self and her more engaged generation she simply replies that where they saw injustice, the young rose to oppose it. They wanted to make things right – unlike the young of today. Ann obsesses over a failed revolution yet regards herself as an empty vessel who “appropriates the lives of others” for her films. She pithily asks a local waitress where the beans come from for her coffee but doesn’t seem to know what to do with the impressive answer that they’re a locally sourced variety brokered by an American living nearby who speaks excellent Thai right down to mastery of the local dialect. Her concerns are surface ones whereas Teaw felt her concerns to be deeper and more important – her friends died for them, but then nothing in particular came of it.

The camera lies repeatedly, from the restaged footage to ever the apparent reframing of “reality” and our own inability to discern one from the other. Peter’s life is perfect, but then perhaps it’s not or at any rate, he’s subject to the same vagaries of fate as the rest of us. Nong, the working class woman may be one girl trapped in a casual employment nightmare or a symbol of the faceless masses who are largely ignored by the likes of Peter and his friends and even by the well meaning Ann, gazing out into a world which they can barely touch. Cinema is not a place for objective truths but for emotional ones – a ghost can be interrogated, its existence explained, but it cannot be exorcised, the film traps it in concentric mirrors, forever distorting its reflection.


Released in the UK by Day for Night

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)

mysterious-object-at-noonApichatpong Weerasethakul started as he meant to go on with his debut feature, straddling the borders between art film and surrealist exercise. A cinematic riff on the classic “exquisite corpse” game, Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Dokfa Nai Meuman) is equal parts neorealist odyssey and commentary on the human need for constructed narrative (something which the film itself consistently rejects). Shot in a grainy black and white, Apitchatpong’s first effort was filmed over three years travelling the length of the country from North to South inviting everyone from all walks of life to contribute something to the ongoing and increasingly strange brand new oral history.

Beginning with a travelling shot from inside a van peddling fish sauce, Apitchatpong fills the air with naturalistic background noise including our very first story – a sappy sounding radio drama called “I’ll Love You Tomorrow” about a guy who loses touch with the love of his life only to find her engaged to another man. The genesis for the ongoing narrative comes from the woman working on the truck who first recounts her own true story of having been sold by her father for nothing more than the money for his train fare home. She then tells us about a disabled boy and his home teacher who will become the central players in the background tale.

The boy and his teacher get on well and are very close, but one day he finds her collapsed with a strange sphere rolling out from underneath her skirt. This “mysterious object” then transforms into a boy who hides the teacher’s body in a cupboard before taking on her form when he realises the first boy misses her. The odd story grows and develops as each person brings something new to it, reflecting their own lives and histories as a kind of brand new myth making occurs in which ordinary people try to make sense of extraordinary events. Consequently, we have everything from kidnapping to hostess bars and aliens suddenly creeping into this magical realist exercise.

Beginning in the city and ending in the country, Apichatpong talks to anyone and everyone, getting old grannies drunk and letting children run riot. Nearing the end of the journey, he recreates the constructed narrative as a travelling show complete with singing and dancing though his country players are quick to criticise the lack of proper script and random nature of the story. Realising they’ll need some kind of explanation as to why the disabled boy is in a wheelchair, the in movie director decides to film an insert sequence along the lines of an archive news segment. More archive footage follows before Apichatpong takes things in the opposite direction by letting the camera roll on with his cast for the invented story as the second boy becomes keen to remind everyone he was promised some KFC on the way home and Apitchatpong himself steps in front of the camera to fix a lighting setup.

Stories are the way we define our worlds, though given enough leeway the ones we imagine for ourselves are much stranger than conventional logic would allow. The real world is, however, ever present in the sappy radio adverts, political posters, elephants and boxing rings which give way to the darker elements of child abductions and human trafficking. Real life is here, but its deeper layer is here too in the stories which we tell to make sense of it. Using narrative devices from intertitles to sign language, Mysterious Object at Noon embraces all kinds of storytelling from the dramatic to the literary, but its heart is always with the people and the random craziness that emerges when attempting to explain the inexplicable. A necessarily disparate and strange experience, Mysterious Object at Noon neatly heralds the direction of Apichatpong’s ongoing career in its effortless playfulness and sympathetic exploration of this most basic of human needs.


French release trailer (subtitles/captions in French only)

Concrete Clouds (Lee Chatametikool, 2014) Via UK Anime Network

Concrete CloudsI reviewed this flawed yet interesting film, Concrete Clouds, for UK Anime Network. Probably I think I liked it a bit more than the score suggests but it does have its problems. Also ’90s (or maybe ’80s?) Thai pop is kind of amazing.


Up to now Lee Chatametikool has been best known as the regular editor on the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady) but with Concrete Clouds he’s finally stepped out of the edit suite and behind the camera to direct his very first feature film. However, Concrete Clouds owes less to Apichatpong Weerasethakul or any of the other well known Thai directors he’s been working with over the last decade than it does to early period Tsai Ming-Liang and the Taiwanese new wave. A mood piece heavy on directorial flair but light on detail, Concrete Clouds never quite comes together but still manages to offer a few rewards for the patient viewer.

Set in 1997 just as the Asian Economic crisis begins to take hold, long time emigré Mutt (Ananda Everingham) gets a late night phone call from his high school age brother to say their father has just jumped off the roof. Mutt goes home for the first time in a long time aiming to lay a few ghosts – less that of his father than that of his teenage self and half forgotten love. Meanwhile, younger brother Nic has formed a tentative romance with a girl from the next building who appears to be living more or less alone and has just begun working in a hostess club. Just like his brother he’ll have to decide whether to abandon his love in Thailand to seek new dreams overseas or chase an ever elusive future in the land of his birth.

To be frank, the somewhat shocking and early death of the father retains little impact after the fact as neither of the now orphaned sons seems to dwell very long on the loss of their only parental figure and there’s no real soul searching over why he did what he did. The blueprints for new buildings he was looking at right before and the constant financial concern on the news screens seem to be evidence enough of his ultimate motives. Neither is much mention made of the absent mother who, one assumes, has been absent for a relatively long time. The age gap between the brothers also means that their relationship is not as close as you might assume brothers to be as Mutt must have left for America when Nic was little more than a toddler. Nevertheless, both boys are cast adrift by the older man’s decision, taken alone and with seemingly little concern for those around him.

The historical context is fairly key to the film though may be impenetrable for those less versed in recent history. In setting the story in 1997, the director intends both to imply that many of Thailand’s present social and economic problems stem back to the Asian Financial Crisis and the new Thai constitution which was created around that time but also to deal with the fragile nature of memory and our own tendencies to over romanticise our pasts by falling in love with a fantasy of our own creation. Mutt has dreamed of his high school girlfriend, Sai, ever since leaving her to go to college in America. He lives with a woman in New York but their relationship doesn’t seem particularly serious and she has not accompanied him to Thailand for his father’s funeral. Even though years have passed he’s remained faithful to the image of Sai he has in his mind and however much he tells himself nothing has changed it’s his own self created image that he’s wedded to, rather than the flesh and blood Sai who’s been busy getting on with her own life in the intervening ten years.

In a another cloud based film, Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds, the title refers to the the central characters who are unable to re-root themselves after the disruption caused to their lives firstly in failed Manchurian expedition and then by the after effects of the war. They float aimlessly trying to find something they can cling on to that will allow them to move forward with their lives and ultimately never find it. In Concrete Clouds it’s almost the opposite problem, the characters are weighed down by their dreams, almost crushed by them and unable to move. Their dreams will never lift off the ground because they can’t bear to let go of the past, of the people they once were and things they once thought they wanted.

The most notable element of Concrete Clouds is its unusual shooting style which incorporates everything from snatches of archival footage to long stretches of fantasy sequences played out as karaoke videos to late ‘90s Thai pop songs. The film has an interesting aesthetic which appropriately matches its melancholy and slightly wistful tone though it fails to capture the exact emotional ache that it seems to be going for. Ultimately its disparate elements never quite seem to coalesce into something more and though Concrete Clouds has plenty to admire it stops short of capturing the heart. Nevertheless it’s an impressive debut from Lee Chatametikool who has marked himself out as new talent to look out for in Thai cinema.


This is getting a release from Day For Night in the UK and here’s the trailer

And here’s a clip of one of the karaoke sequences

And another from the OST

(I don’t know any Thai at all, what is this music?)

Hi-So + Q&A, Curzon Renoir 1st March 2013

Hi-So 1

As the film begins, a bewildered young woman is being shown to her room by a strangely attentive hotel staff in what seems to be luxury Thai resort. She is there to visit her Thai boyfriend, recently returned from study abroad in America and now it seems the star of an upcoming motion picture. Ananda, born and bred in Thailand but brought up in an affluent, bilingual family converses with his girlfriend in English but with everyone else in Thai. He is obviously busy with film work and his girlfriend is largely left to her own devices in the otherwise entirely empty hotel. As time moves on the geographical shift seems to have exposed the cracks in the couple’s relationship – the crew complain about Americanisms creeping into Ananda’s on screen performance and his girlfriend soon gets bored of all the attention that goes with dating a film star. It soon becomes obvious that she’s in the way, a distraction and unwelcome intrusion of the outside into Ananda’s life in Thailand.

Soon after she returns home the film seems to jump on a few months and Ananda is now living in an apartment in Bangkok with a woman from the PR company. Although the couple seem happy, or at least happier, Ananda still seems restless – perhaps more so now that his film work is finished leaving him with little else to do. Evidently Ananda’s family were fairly wealthy – the apartment the two share is one of many in a previously luxury but ‘under renovation’ apartment block owned by Ananda’s often absent mother.

In telling episodes of symmetry, Ananda never really seems to fit in anywhere. Constantly at odds with himself he seems to be a Thai in Thailand and an American in America. Whilst filming he rejects his American girlfriend leaving her forced to alleviate her isolation by inviting herself to a hotel employee’s birthday party where she can’t communicate because she doesn’t speak Thai and the hotel employees only have basic English skills. Moving forward, where it seems Ananda might have become reconciled to his life in Thailand with May, a visit from his American university friends leaves May equally isolated and sidelined as Ananda parties American style with his college buddies. Whilst in ‘Thai’ mode, Ananda seems like a quiet, respectable and respectful young man but with his American friends he’s loud and energetic, youthful and extroverted.

It’s very clear there are two Anandas each in constant struggle with the other. A privileged upbringing rich in overseas influence and an extended period abroad have led to an intense feeling of disconnection with his native culture, yet once abroad Ananda is Thai and forever a foreigner. His inability to be more than one thing at once, to be a complete person at any one moment seems to be tearing his life apart. In unwatched moments he appears intensely melancholic, frustrated and more than a little lost. He drifts from one thing to another, not really doing anything or taking anything seriously enough to fully commit to it.

Hi-So, short for High Society – the slightly aimless world in which Ananda and many others like him are living, is a very interesting film about the crushing ennui of the modern, monied man. Though it touches briefly on the collective trauma of the tsunami and the country’s rapid economic growth, this is very much a film about one man’s cultural confusion and ultimately how it’s left him feeling even as an outsider to himself. Undoubtedly this is one of those films where some will say that nothing really happens and others will reply that’s because everything is happening but for those willing to look deep enough Hi-So is certainly worthy of attention.