Variations on a Theme
Michael Koresky on Anocha Suwichakornpong (By the Time It Gets Dark)
A middle-aged woman asks a young filmmaker why she is interested in making a film based on her life. “It’s like you're living history,” she responds. Taew, the older woman, who had been politically radical during a particularly violent, traumatic period in the 1970s in Thailand, demurs, especially when the younger woman claims her life is “mundane” by comparison. The tension between what makes one embody “living history” and what might constitute the “mundane” is a key to unlocking the rich, strange, altogether invigorating cinema of Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose remarkable second feature By the Time It Gets Dark, as indicated above, is concerned with reckonings around personal and political histories. It’s a film that doesn’t just textually engage with these histories, however—as any great filmmaker should, Anocha makes them inextricable from aesthetics and structure, even when her divergences and slippages seem to bring us far from what seemed like her film’s central concerns. Here, the past is always present, but that doesn’t just mean that it haunts or permeates our contemporary world: the past reconstitutes and recombines our very processes, internal and external, our molecules, our narratives.
This isn’t a film you can get a handle on with one or two viewings, but its pleasures make it eminently readable on a scene-by-scene basis. As a director, as a constructor of images and a creator of moods, Anocha constantly looks forward and back, giving us enough information to allow for a psychological reading of her characters while also ensuring we see them as symbolic, endlessly malleable. By the Time It Gets Dark seems to have something of a bifurcated structure, yet only depending on how legible the lines are between those two halves to a given viewer—meaning that even this possible structural conceit is subjective. The aforementioned dialogue between the filmmaker and her potential subject is the centerpiece of what could be seen as the first half: Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) is working on a script that dramatizes events surrounding the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, during which right-wing paramilitary forces murdered a group of student activists demonstrating against a recently re-ascendant monarchy. With dozens of young people beaten, raped, and murdered (the official death toll was 46, though the numbers are believed to be wildly minimized by the government), these events are a genuine source of very real remembered horror for the Thai people, and Anocha’s invocation of this disturbing period in her country’s history immediately sets her film in a space of trauma. Though we see glimpses of what are clearly cinematic re-enactments during the pre-title sequence, including jarring images of students face-down on the floor of a hangar, as military men with M-16s prowl around them, Anocha then flashes back to a time apparently earlier in the project’s inception, as Ann sits down with Taew (Rassami Paoluengtong), her main source, to interview her about her experiences.
The doubled delving into history—Anocha’s own and her presumed surrogate Ann’s—would seem to require or at least encourage a certain level of dramatic urgency, yet this filmmaker is in search of something else. As is clear from the film’s very opening shots, in which a camera laterally tracks through a dead-leaf-strewn, seemingly long abandoned house as a woman opens a window to the vast natural beauty beyond, Anocha has made a film marked by drift, history as a permeating force. Anocha was born in 1976, the year of the massacre, so the event is old enough to be impossible for her to remember but recent enough for her to be stamped by its memory and cultural significance, so it makes perfect sense that her way of representing it would be a highly interiorized questioning rather than, say, a vivid, rattling realism. In By the Time It Gets Dark, history is embedded in every frame, yet it lurks and hints at itself rather than make itself immediately known. When we first meet Ann and Taew, it’s not in the midst of a raw one-on-one with the older woman forced to dredge up painful memories, as a viewer might expect considering the subject matter; instead, the women arrive at a serenely beautiful, if austere, rural home surrounded by gently swaying trees and grasses, and the two discuss which bedrooms to sleep in, Ann thoughtfully telling Taew she can rest for a couple of hours before they begin their interview session. These sorts of details establish Anocha’s approach as peculiarly delicate, even if the rest of the film could hardly be considered tiptoeing around the central traumas at hand.
We soon learn from their discussion that Taew was a leftist activist in college in 1976, which prompts a sequence of a younger Taew and fellow students planning a protest against their newly elected president, putting up banners and flyers (“GET OUT DICTATOR!”). This could either be seen as Anocha’s dramatization or an image from Ann’s ultimately completed final film, a kind of flash-forward. Such scenes don’t recur so often, so it’s never made clear, and of course it doesn’t matter. Anocha’s movie version of these events wouldn’t necessarily be any more authentic than Ann’s, after all. Yet even though the filmmaker has said in interviews that she thinks of her work as self-reflexive, what Anocha is after in By the Time It Gets Dark is far trickier—and nervier—than a metafiction about the limits of representation. History is a can of worms, and once Anocha opens it, she exposes her characters and her film to all kinds of purposeful confusions: dreams, detours, and conceits in which characters, situations, and settings are mirrored (some people reappear played by different actors) or even doubled—during what could be a forest sleepwalk, Ann sees a little boy in a bear costume peering back at her, and as she follows him, inquisitively and then desperately, she begins to see herself in the reverse shot. She follows her double until she collapses by a tree, at which time—and why not?—she uncovers a magically sparkling mushroom, which seems to send the film down an entirely new rabbit hole.
At this point in the film, even before it begins to double back on itself, searching for new means of cinematic expression, Anocha has moved almost imperceptibly away from what initially seemed like her structural gambit: the “real” and “fictional” versions of history bumping up against one another. She’s not merely jumping back and forth in time, or going in and out of dream states. Instead, she’s implying that history lives inside everyone, and creates constant identity ruptures. “I wanted to contrast the present day, the general sense of helplessness, as well as the characters being unaware, with the burden of history,” she said in a Film Comment interview. Perhaps the film’s great expressions of this unspoken burden of history reside in a mysteriously recurring, nameless character played by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk. We first see this mercurial, wispy young woman with vaguely haunted eyes as a waitress at an outdoor café patronized by Ann and Taew. She answers a few of their questions about the establishment’s sourcing of its coffee beans but is more interested in the nature of the film she overhears Ann talking about, and appears skeptical of Ann transposing Taew’s life story into cinematic form; she nonchalantly takes their order for oyster mushrooms and leaves. When next we see this same young woman, she is working as a janitor at a hotel; she again pops up bussing plates in a kitchen on a river cruise; later we see her, hair shorn, sweeping leaves and praying in a Buddhist temple. Malleable, identity-less, she becomes something like a wordless Greek chorus, a symbol of shiftless, free-floating contemporary anxiety, not directly or literally affected by the events of October 1976 but perhaps the offspring of its calamity, a representative of this “general sense of helplessness.”
Floating through the film, this young woman comes in contact with another main character Anocha abruptly introduces into the narrative about halfway through. When we first meet Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), he’s going about chores in a tobacco plant, moving giant tobacco leaves around a warehouse in casual, documentary-like footage of work. We might assume he’s a factory worker, but when we next see this handsome young man in line to board an airplane, two young girls accost him to have selfies taken with him. We soon realize he’s a famous actor (perhaps he was at the tobacco factory to research for a role), and is flying into Bangkok to begin work on an upcoming indie film, presumably Ann’s. Then, after we see Peter opening a draft of the script, Anocha, as if to cement the idea that we’re fully in another compartment of her film, cuts to a scene of Ann and Taew replaying their dialogue from the beginning, except this time they are played by different, more polished-looking actresses, and the house they enter is a slightly upscale, fully furnished, more “cinematic” space. Is this just another run-through of the same content for the sake of creating another doubling effect, or is Ann’s film within the film itself intended as a self-reflexive work that incorporates its own making into its narrative, much as By the Time It Gets Dark seems to?
The lines between spaces and realities continue to blur as we are invited to enter Peter’s perspective, although our identification with this screen idol is constantly thwarted by continual reveals that we’re watching designated performances—including, in one case, a treacly music video, perhaps the film’s most memorably off-kilter non sequitur (“Don’t lie to me,” he sings, as he stares into the middle distance with pop melancholy, while wearing a silly fish costume). Peter’s tangential relationship to the narrative is mirrored in his tenuous connection to the historical trauma around which Anocha’s entire film circles, leaving him an unsettling outlier in the film. His strange and singular status—or lack of status—in By the Time It Gets Dark makes it even more disturbing when, while color correcting dailies from the film, the filmmakers receive a phone call that he has suddenly died in a car accident. Momentarily stunned, they continue their work, but the image of Peter on the monitor instantly takes on new significance. Subsequent viewings even render the crocodile tears of his goofy music video genuinely mournful. He’s suddenly a ghost, a victim of his own sad history. With this film, and her prior feature, 2009’s Mundane History, a film similarly prone to narrative and visual drift about a filmmaker paralyzed by an unknown accident and the male nurse who tends to him, Anocha has shown a particular interest in how individuals respond to intimations of mortality and perspectival shifts. In that earlier film, there is a devastating—and to Thai film censors, controversial—scene in which the paraplegic main character tries and fails to masturbate, a dramatic expression of the inability to connect mind and spirit. Similar schisms permeate By the Time It Gets Dark as well, which finds less literal ways to represent people disassociating from themselves.
Anocha Suwichakornpong nevertheless finds ways to bridge these gaps between mind and body, past and present, reality and illusion, and it’s within the overall construction of her film. For she is an artist of the cinema specifically, and without her quite remarkable gift for framing and cutting, all of these themes, references, histories, and threads wouldn’t register as provocatively and emotionally resonant as they do. In its tapestry of experiences, By the Time It Gets Dark creates its own kind of living history, one that glances back into the haunted past and, finally, looks ahead to unknown futures: the final images, with their sudden pixelated glitches and crazily hyper-real pinks and blues, call attention to themselves as digital alterations. It’s just another of the film’s many transformations, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether it’s the ultimate passageway to life or death.