Anocha 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)