In the spirit of master of mystery Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the languid Thai elliptical is now apparently a national house style. For hearty film geeks it can become an addiction: “slow cinema” observations that seem to ooze cosmic empathy, jungle greenery blazing with tropical sunshine, enigmas hidden in plain view, a sense of meditative Buddhist celebration about the need we don’t have for contrived resolutions. Anocha Suwichakornpong has been toiling in these fields alongside Weerasethakul since the turn of the century, and her second feature has the exploratory, fragmented quality of a modern koan. Thai history, going back to the Thammasat University massacre of October 1976, lurks in the fabric, as does a film-within-a-film about the incident that may or may not have been made at all — or may actually be the film we’re watching. But nothing is quite as vital as the sometimes only semi-contextualized present moment.
We gets glimpses of narrative: a dilapidated house, over which students pray; an airport hangar where soldiers patrol hogtied children lying on their bellies, carefully documented by an incongruous photog. A famous activist, now aged (Rassami Paoluengton), comes to a rented vacation home in the country to be interviewed on video as research for a film about her experience in 1976; flashbacks bring us back to her student debates about democratic strategy. Back in the now, the power goes out; walking in the bamboo later, the intimidated young filmmaker (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) hallucinates a boy wearing tiger pajamas, chases and loses him and finds instead a mushroom that glitters like quartz. (There are a lot of mushrooms.) An avatar for Suwichakornpong herself, the filmmaker wakes up crying, has tea in the darkness with unnamed ghosts and records herself recounting her childhood experience of telekinesis…
Then the movie gets strange — or at least almost late-Godardian. Suwichakornpong fractures what’s already threadbare, crafting a kind of lyrical fugue about Thai modernity and and the fraught possibility of evoking it on film. George Méliès is quoted (with moon shrooms), a tobacco worker (Arak Amornsupasiri) becomes an international movie star, we return to the rented house with the same characters but played by different actresses making different choices. Images you might take at first as arbitrary interpolations turn out to be part of a movie the characters are making. By the time a breathy pop music video emerges from the dreaminess — “please don’t lie to me” — patterns have begun to emerge; aside from the doublings and detours, a single actress (Atchara Siwan) appears in four different roles, as service-drones to the film’s upper-middle-class personae. From maid to waitress to Buddhist nun, she’s socially peripheral, but the camera abandons larger things for her, as if to insist that the film, like history, has no center.
In the end, By the Time It Gets Dark literally dissolves and reconstitutes in a cataract of pixels. You could be forgiven for thinking that while all this is going on, nothing at all seems to happen — it’s a film, a rather gorgeous one, of glances and ephemera and delicate metaphors.
By the Time It Gets Dark
Directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong
Opens April 14, Film Society of Lincoln Center