Reluctance to Engage:
Reclaiming the Historical Subject in Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time It Gets Dark
Anocha Suwichakornpong's sophomore feature By the Time It Gets Dark (2016), originally released under the Thai title of Dao Khanong, has earned critical acclaim for its "kaleidoscopic meditation on the shifting relationship between past and present, truth and fiction, movies and memory" (Kermode 2017). Indeed, the film alternates between the past and the present, the natural and artificial world, physical and mental space, moving and still image, and color and black-and-white—all combined to destabilize the narrative and defamiliarize audience expectation and experience. In exposing the artifice of the cinematic medium, By the Time eschews easy answers and interrogates the medium's reliability to record and be a record of the past. The past in this instance is Thailand's national trauma, the 1976 student massacre at Thammasat University in Bangkok. On October 6 of that year, the royal military, police, and paramilitary troops laid siege to the university and brutalized and killed an untold number of students condemned by the government as communists and threats to civil society. Such political engagement and activism among the students exactly four decades prior to the release of the film stand in sharp contrast to Thailand's contemporary youth who are shown deeply embedded in new technology and consumerist culture afforded by the nation's economic growth and stability. This not uncommon present-day reflection is given much more depth and nuance by the ruptured narration that digresses, implodes, and transcends time and place, perhaps structured by Buddhist teachings that according to Frank Reynolds "continue to inform the secular domain of politics in contemporary Thailand" (quoted in Fuhrmann 2016, 16).
Anocha1 herself has explained the critical stance in her film as both an "ode to the memory-recording and reconstructing machine that is cinema" and "my attempt to deal with the impossibility of making a historical film in a place where there is no history" (Kermode 2017). This latter perspective on contemporary Thailand may be at once a self-reflection on the lack of her (and her generation's) involvement in political struggles, a response to the nation's repression of the 1976 state violence, and a critique of the recurring coups d'état and military rule most recently installed in 2014. This understanding also sheds light on why Anocha's attempt to re-present history is executed in a way that diminishes its effectiveness by distancing the audience and subverting the immediacy of cinematic experience.
In the first six minutes of the film, the calm invitation of the initial shot of an unidentified woman pulling open doors and shutters to allow sunlight into a country house collides with the image of dozens of half-dressed youths lying face down on the hard floor of an abandoned warehouse. They are lying still with their hands tied behind their backs and their bare feet covered in dirt, armed soldiers patrol over their lithe bodies bellowing orders to keep their faces down and not talk. The serene sound of nature accompanying the first several shots is disrupted by the steely sound of a woman's voice giving orders through a megaphone, "More brutal! Be more brutal! Point the guns at them!" Suddenly, we realize it is a soundstage and they are making a film. Compounding this reveal are subsequent shots of the armed soldiers playfully posing alone and in groups while toting their guns to alleviate prior experience of anxiety and tension. These conflicting images emphasize their performance to stir uncertainty and distort whatever emotional impact the re-enactment might have at first offered.
By refusing to explain the events and characters and offering a closed dramatization of the historical event, Anocha is taking an ethical stand and acknowledging the impossibility of mastering the narrative of a twentieth-century or "modernist event" (White, 1995). Paradoxically, she succeeds in making a historical film, in spite of (or owing to) her reluctance to fully reconstruct the past.
Within the film's complex canvas are two female characters of different generations: Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker (also Anocha's surrogate), and the subject of Ann's film Taew (Rassami Paoluengtong), a famous author and survivor of the 1976 massacre. In order to interview Taew about her student years and political awakening, Ann has rented a country house to allow them intimacy and an opportunity to get acquainted. They are the only pair of stable characters in the film, and they serve as delicate moorings from which to cast the web-like narrative. As the female-centered narrative progresses and digresses, it reinforces the impression that By the Time is more than a film about making a film about historical trauma. Through Ann and Taew (and their doubles and triples), the most intimate reflection on the historical past is provided by focusing on their personal experiences and encounters. More significantly, the female subjects are not based on sexuality or maternity, but on the historical self.
The unconventional attempt to re-enact the violent atrocities perpetrated by the military against the students is repeated during the first interview with Taew when she remembers how she became involved in politics. Shifting from the present to the past, students passionately debate whether to demonstrate against their school rector's acceptance of a cabinet appointment by an illegitimate government that seized power in a military coup. The most vocal member of the group is a female student, possibly the young Taew, who leads the protest and mobilizes the group to work into the night to plaster the university building with flyers and banners decrying hypocrisy. Nearly ninety minutes into the film, the narrative returns to the young woman who is perhaps coming home after the night of postering on campus, only to shift to the present again to show the older Taew being interviewed, her profile in close-up, and describing what she cannot forget about the fateful October day:
When I woke up in the morning, I went downstairs and I heard what had happened at Thammasat University. The TV station…Channel 9 had broadcast footage of the shootings that had taken place. What I saw shocked me deeply because I hadn't expected such violence on this scale. For example, the image of…people who were forced to lie face down on the football pitch. The military-backed students, the Red Gaurs, the village scouts and all other unspecified groups who were beating them down and dragging the dead bodies out to burn them. I saw the image of people being burned beneath a pile of car tires and set on fire. I might have read about the methods with which the government clamped down on what they called "the terrorists." They'd be thrown out of helicopters or set on fire in oil barrels. I had never seen such brutality with my own eyes. It made me…It just left me cold…and drained. I recall collapsing into a chair and just staring at the images in front of me. I couldn't believe my eyes.
While the narration is compelling and horrifying, it is also striking that Taew's reflection of the experience is mediated. She was not a first-person witness, but experienced the historical event through cinema's kindred medium: television. This secondhand account is an apparent "ode" to the "memory-recording machine"; it acknowledges the potency of the visual medium to arouse affect, paradoxically rendering the remote experience as authentic and true. As conveyed by Taew, "What I saw shocked me deeply." And it is precisely this appreciation of the power of the cinematic apparatus that has Ann, the filmmaker, become her own subject following the two women's most intimate encounter.
Taew: You know, I've never asked you this, but why did you want to make a film based on my life?
Ann: I don't know.Taew: You don't know or you don't want to tell me?
Ann: It's…It's hard to explain really. But I feel that you've lived through so much, when I read books on October 1976 and think of you having been in the midst of it all. And that you're still here. It's like…you're living history. Your life is meaningful. A life worth living. Whereas me, I appropriate someone's life and turn it into a film. Maybe because my life is quite mundane.
Taew: There's one thing you're wrong about. I'm not living history. I'm just a survivor.
During this exchange, the intimate setting is palpably uncanny and awkward; it is as if the two women represent similar poles of a magnet and any attempt at closeness only pushes them apart. Moreover, Ann's delayed responses to Taew's inquiries expose her discomfort and detachment from herself. She marvels at Taew's history, and despairs at her own "mundane" life (an allusion to Anocha's 2009 first feature film, Mundane History). Taew, in turn, refutes Ann's romanticized misperception and recasts herself as a "survivor." This corresponds with Taew's earlier answer to Ann's question, "What made you decide to join the movement?" Taew replied, "It was a combination of things. You have to understand that back then we really fought for what we believed in. There was no money involved. No one hired you to protest, unlike nowadays." Despite Taew's insistence she is a "victim" of history, Ann is incredulous of Taew's political involvement and personal sacrifice. Thus, it is unsurprising when Ann presses Taew with, "You've been through so much in your life. If you had a chance to talk to your younger self, would you have anything to say to her?" To which Taew simply answers, "No," thereby refusing to rewrite history and, more importantly, offer Ann an easy prescription to cure her disaffection with her own life.
Having confessed to finding her life trivial and outside history, Ann turns the camera onto herself to reclaim her elusive identity. Perhaps this self-reflection is also triggered by Ann's encounter with a young barista (a recurring character whose identity is consistently tethered to her labor in the service industry) who boldly puts forward that Taew, and not Ann, should be telling the story since it is Taew's life. By this reasoning, why isn't Ann telling her own story? In a direct address to the camera shown within the frame to disclose the act of recording, Ann recounts a singular moment in her childhood when she was able to practice telekinesis—that is, move an empty glass across a table at first by inches and then by a foot. An early evidence of Ann's difficulty with or reluctance to engage with the physical realm, the self-introspection launches Ann (and the film) into a fantastic and feverish journey of self-discovery. The revelatory moment before the camera is preceded by shots of Ann performing various activities on her own, including riding a moped into town, preparing breakfast or doing the dishes, visiting the local mushroom farm, and walking in the countryside. Succeeding these mundane activities and the self-interrogation are close-up shots of mushrooms (in both color and black-and-white), an insert of a clip from the pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902) in which scientists discover super-proportioned lunar mushrooms, a time-lapse cinematography of growing mushrooms, a shot of a bird perched on a wall, and close-up shots of a petri dish engulfed by fungal growth.
According to Michael Robinson, a "spiritual crisis" results from "a shift from the heaviness of political burden (the struggle for democracy) to the lightness of Western consumerism and the absence of struggle" (2005, 28). Although Robinson is describing the conditions in contemporary South Korea by comparing it to the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia—as portrayed by Milan Kundera in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)—it applies equally to Thailand, which shares with South Korea a traumatic past of military coups and student massacres, and, later, successful economic development. Yet Ann's uneasy and mournful attitude towards her life, devoid of political protests, is more than a symptom of this historical shift. Thailand's forgetting of the traumatic past to pursue economic success has also meant the disavowal of national and personal loss. So Ann's struggle to reconnect with the past is also an attempt to remember and initiate the work of mourning, most viscerally expressed by her waking up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat and tears. Representations of this melancholia are also found in other Thai films—such as those by leading Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul with whom Anocha shares the editor, Lee Chatametikool, who is famous for his complex, disjunctive editing. However, Anocha's work is uniquely female-centered, and the ruptured narrative makes it far more confrontational in its engagement with the audience best exemplified by the mushroom motif.
The mushroom in Ann's hallucinatory voyage recalls Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) in which the Caterpillar advises Alice to eat the mushroom. In addition to the fungal relationship, there are many more details that By the Time shares with this children’s classic: Alice walking into the woods and falling into a dream world, the state-sanctioned executions by the Queen of Hearts ("Off with his head!"), and Alice's loss of identity as she struggles to define who she is. There is even a double for the White Rabbit when Ann chases after a young girl in a bear costume in the woods. The young girl becomes Ann's double, her abject self, and Ann chases after the doppelgänger. When she finally catches up with herself, she drops against a tall tree to rest and discovers a magical purple mushroom with its bejeweled cap sparkling in the light.
In this way, By the Time is more than an engagement with cinema's materiality. The historical film is successful precisely because it takes an aesthetic and an ethical approach to representing Thailand's traumatic past by demanding not only an external reflection but also self-examination. These meditations continue into the second half of the film which takes place in Bangkok with more of the doubling and tripling of identifiable and fleeting characters, mushrooming or adding more layers to the complex narrative. It is a strange and thrilling experience to follow Ann's (or Anocha's) deep excursion into self-discovery and witness the film's fractured and collapsible narrative that threatens to come apart with each digression and progression. It finally implodes. Using a cinematic technique called datamoshing, the penultimate shot of a Bangkok nightclub exposes the noise of the digital image as it crash-dissolves into an image of the countryside with its purple sky gradually rendered into the color blue.
1 This essay follows the convention in Thai Studies that refers to a Thai individual's first name rather than last name.
Dao Khanong [By the Time It Gets Dark]. Directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong. 2016. Bangkok, Thailand: Electric Eel Films.
Fuhrmann, Arnika. 2016. Ghostly Desires: Queer Sexuality and Vernacular Buddhism in Contemporary Thai Cinema. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Kermode, Mark. 2017. "Dazzling Reflections on Thai History." Review of By the Time It Gets Dark, by Anocha Suwichakornpong. The Guardian, June 18, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/18/by-the-time-it-gets-dark-film-review-dazzling-reflections-thai-history.
Robinson, Michael. 2005. "Contemporary Cultural Production in South Korea: Vanishing Meta-Narratives of Nation." In New Korean Cinema, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer, 15–31. New York: New York University Press.
White, Hayden. 1995. "The Modernist Event." In The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event, edited by Vivian Sobchack, 17–38. New York and London: Routledge.