Disorientation isn’t always a bad thing. It can be stimulating, even pleasurable. The sense of temporarily losing one’s bearings – whether it’s due to being lost in an unfamiliar city or in a work of art – can trigger new forms of awareness. It’s certainly something I hope for when I watch a film, and it probably explains why I respond so strongly to the work of Anocha Suwichakornpong. Almost all of the Thai writer-director’s films are conceived around ruptures in the storytelling fabric. Some are nearly invisible, and sneak up on you slowly. Others radically reorientate your point of view in the space of a single edit.
I remember feeling a sense of dizziness watching her debut Mundane History (2010). It’s a quiet chamber piece that, towards the end, abruptly takes flight – literally. Most of the film takes place inside a suburban mansion where a recently paralysed young man bonds with his new male nurse. But in an abrupt departure, we leave Bangkok – and Earth, for that matter – to hurtle through outer space towards a dying star in a psychedelic sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This rupture, it turns out, is a film that the two protagonists are watching in a planetarium on a rare excursion out of the house. But the effect of the cosmic digression reframes the domestic drama within existential terms, and heightens our awareness of everything that lies outside the cinematic frame. Suwichakornpong often uses this device of a film within a film to reflect on cinema itself and how we make meaning out of the images we encounter. The film ends with another rupture, one that’s visceral: a single take of an actual caesarean birth, complete with the severing of an umbilical cord. Graphic and unnerving, it is undoubtedly the film’s most emotional scene. It points to Suwichakornpong’s other cinematic obsession: the fluid border between reality and fiction and how the two are often entangled in the same moment.
Her second feature By the Time It Gets Dark (2016), an elusive epic, takes these ideas to the next level. Mixing genres and influences as diverse as the work of David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard, and music videos and commercials, this is Suwichakornpong’s personal reckoning with cinema’s ability in the 21st century to confront legacies of historical trauma. Along the way, the narrative splinters into a constellation of shards, or, more precisely, pixels. It examines an infamous 1976 student massacre in Thailand. But rather than deliver a historical recreation, Suwichakornpong conceives a sly, and highly elliptical, meditation on the nature of representation and image making. The first half of the film follows Ann, a director making a film about a survivor of the massacre. The second half follows Peter, a commercial actor working in Bangkok. Woven throughout is the story of Nong, a migratory worker, and various ruminations on magic mushrooms, telekinesis, globalisation and the instability of the digital image. Suwichakornpong spent six years making By the Time It Gets Dark, and part of its mystery may have to do with its long gestation and distillation. The end result is an enigmatic statement on the future of cinema littered with gaps and fissures meant to destabilise and stimulate the intrepid viewer.
Paul Dallas: One of the big questions facing artists in the second half of the 20th century was about how art can represent history, especially when history involves unthinkable violence. When I first saw By The Time It Gets Dark, I was struck by how it applies this question to cinema in the 21st century. I’m curious about what sparked the idea for you.
Anocha Suwichakornpong: The initial idea came to me in 2007 when I met a woman who was the subject of a documentary about a takeover of a jeans factory by its female workers. The takeover happened in Bangkok a few months before October 1976. This was a very turbulent political time in Thailand. I was really inspired by the struggle of these women and I wanted to make a film about this largely forgotten part of history. I wound up making a short fiction film called Jai (2008) about a film-maker making a documentary about the jeans factory today. The first part shows her filming with an actor playing the part of the worker and the second part is a portrait of someone who actually works there. After Jai, I began developing a documentary about the October 1976 massacre that was inspired by an article written by a Thai academic. He had been a student activist and a leader of the movement and the article presented interviews he conducted with the perpetrators. It was the first time I read about the incident not from the victims’ point of view and it was very jarring. I decided the documentary would similarly take the point of view of the right-wing perpetrators. The project never materialised but some of the ideas were resurrected in By the Time It Gets Dark.
Paul: It’s interesting that you felt you needed to shift into fiction to tell a story about a very real event. At the centre of the film is a massacre of students and activists that took place on 6 October 1976 at Thammasat University. Can you briefly describe what happened?
Anocha: In 1976, people in Thailand were protesting the return of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, a military dictator who had ruled for a decade. In 1973, democracy blossomed in the country and he had been forced to flee because of all the protests against him. But in the intervening years, the sentiment had shifted. The propaganda machine began to work again and the population became very royalist and right-wing. When the Kittikachorn returned in 1976, he did so under the guise of being an ordained Buddhist monk and wore an orange robe. Monks have a special status in Thailand and cannot be questioned so it was obvious what he was doing. His return caused great outrage especially among young students. The message of the propaganda was that students wanted to take over and transform Thailand into a communist country and the government was no doubt been helped by the United States. On the morning of 6 October, the Thai army and police opened fire on unarmed students protesting at Thammasat University. It was very brutal. People were hanged and burned alive in broad daylight while others cheered. The event drove many communists into hiding in the jungle.
Paul: In the opening moments of the film, we glimpse a brief recreation of the massacre. A group of young protesters are lying in a warehouse being terrorised by gun-wielding soldiers while journalists snap pictures. A film director quickly disrupts the scene and we realise we’re watching a film set. It’s a film within a film. Instantly, we’re forced to reckon with what it means to make a film about a ‘real’ event.
Anocha: The idea stemmed from the images of the massacre. Even though it is largely forbidden in schools, we were all aware of the photographs of the massacre. They were very brutal. People hanged and set on fire. Sometimes, I feel that when people talk about the massacre, they only speak about these images. It’s as if they overpower everything else. They don’t question anything else. The photographs become their only memory. When I first had the idea to make the film, a big question for me was whether or not to include the actual documentary images of the event. From the beginning, I took the position that I would not show photos or footage. I was going to make a fictional film that would include one of the stories. I felt that I couldn’t just take those images and claim them in a film. So instead, I wrote scenes reconstructing part of the event but we see a film crew filming it.
Paul: The scene only lasts two minutes and yet it casts a shadow over the rest of what we see in the film. It seems that that’s true in life as well. Thailand has been undergoing another tumultuous period politically recently. Was this on your mind as you were writing By the Time It Gets Dark?
Anocha: Yes. Over the last dozen years, there’s been a rise in fanatical right-wing propaganda and nationalist ideologies. I think when I first started writing the film, I saw a connection between what was happening in 2006 and what occurred in 1976. In 2006, a military coup ousted the democratically elected prime minister. We had been experiencing a period of relative political calm and economic prosperity. In a way, the coup was a shock but also a revelation. A shock in the sense that I didn’t expect so many people would support the coup-makers. A lot of people did, even the educated urban people. They went out to give flowers to the soldiers riding in tanks in the streets of Bangkok. It was very surreal. Since then, we’ve had several more coups.
Paul: The first half of By the Time It Gets Dark mostly follows a writer-director named Ann. She’s interviewing a former student activist and survivor of the massacre to make a fiction film about her. But at the film’s halfway mark, a radical shift takes place. Ann takes a walk in a forest, finds a magic mushroom, and falls asleep under a tree. Suddenly, we begin following a new character and a new storyline. We meet Peter, a well-known actor in Bangkok, who spends his days performing and hanging out with his girlfriend. He seems almost like he’s sleepwalking through life. I’m curious why you’re drawn to such nonlinear storytelling.
Anocha: I never want the audience to be too comfortable watching my films. At some point, I want the film to attack the audience, to make them think about what they’re seeing and how it relates or doesn’t relate to their own lives. I want them to be mentally engaged. Perhaps I just feel that nonlinear stories are more life-like in a way. Film watching is a very subjective experience. Often, when I’m watching films, my mind wanders a lot and I fall asleep very easily, even if I’m watching films that I really enjoy. Sometimes, I’m in this state between sleep and wakefulness, and when I come back, I’m trying to figure out if what I saw was imagined. Did I dream it or did it happen on screen? In a sense, this is how cinema is for me. It’s an experience. As a viewer, it’s never something just about being only there at that very moment. It’s about that and other things at the same time. I think it’s a more accurate way of trying to talk about the human condition. That’s probably why I feel like telling more than one story at the same time in my films.
Paul: I like that it gives the films a metaphysical dimension. I was surprised to find a number of Western critics who seemed a bit baffled. They found these leaps too conceptual. For me, By the Time It Gets Dark is about how we consume and interpret images and stories. You present us with a constellation of narrative possibilities. There’s no single way that the pieces fit together and the gaps are invitations to the viewer to make meaning themselves.
Anocha: I think it’s much more interesting that way. Actually, I don’t like the kind of film that appears to be fragmented but where all the pieces come together neatly right at the end. Christopher Nolan is a good example. For me, this approach defeats the purpose of the structure.
…I’m trying to figure out if what I saw was imagined. Did I dream it or did it happen on screen?
Paul: I completely agree. Let’s talk about the character of Peter. He’s played by Thai pop star Arak Amornsupasiri. Once we shift in his storyline, the look and the feel of the film seems to mutate as well. The images becomes slicker, more commercial perhaps. There’s even a funny musical sequence that plays like an extended music video. Peter sings a saccharine ballad while he’s dressed and undressed by assistants. He seems doll-like in these scenes, as if he’s not really real.
Anocha: People are often puzzled by Peter. They don’t think he belongs in the film. But for me, he’s an essential character because he is an actor. He’s someone who travels back and forth between reality and fiction. That’s what actors do in their daily life. Peter is the bridge linking the two halves of the film. In a way, his entry into the narrative is a shifting point in terms of the aesthetics of the film. He’s also someone who seems to always be moving but never going anywhere. When we cast Arak, I made adjustments to the character in order to be more like him in reality. The music video scene was actually already in the script. There’s a scene where he’s about to board an airplane and fans run up to him and ask to take photos with him. We had extras in the line but women who approached him were real fans who recognised him. We just documented it. It’s a nice way of working, trying to plan for things that can happen by accident.
Paul: His introduction also represents a moment where the film deftly mixes reality and fiction. The scene begins in a tobacco factory in the countryside. We’re watching actual workers at the factory tend to the cured tobacco leaves. Peter appears dressed like one of the workers but the camera follows him outside for a cigarette. He leans against a wall to smoke and his pose is reminiscent of a Marlboro ad. This subtle shift in visual vocabulary, from documentary to cigarette commercial, is part of the way the film constantly plays with how we, as viewers, interpret and decode images.
Anocha: Part of the inspiration for this sequence came from the tobacco factory itself. We were filming in the northern province of Nan, near the border with Laos. This is the area where many of the communist students fled into the jungle to escape the military. The area has a lot of historical significance. It’s also where the American silent film Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) was shot, made by Ernest Beaumont Schoedsack, the same director and producer of King Kong. They wanted to make an exotic epic shot in the Thai wilderness, so they came to Nan. Anyway, I fell in love with the place, like a character in my film. I discovered this tobacco farm and became fascinated with the process of harvesting and curing tobacco leaves. I had this idea of including the process in the film because it’s something that takes place in the same area as one of the main storylines. I felt there must be a way to connect it, which is why Peter is introduced working here. The owner of the factory allowed us to shoot there for free. Her only request was to have a copy of the footage. She said that her children probably wouldn’t take it over and that it will probably close down soon. I think it’s wrong to film in a particular location and ignore what’s happening locally. That seems too strange to me, to film and have no interaction with the people who actually live there.
Paul: I think it’s rare among fiction film-makers. There’s another aspect of your filmmaking that I wanted to explore, which is your depiction of men’s bodies. I’m thinking of two scenes in particular. In Mundane History, Ake masturbates in the bathtub. The actor is completely nude and the scene is quite frank in its presentation. (When the film was released in Thailand, it received a restrictive rating because of the scene.) In By the Time It Gets Dark, there’s a scene in Bangkok where Peter lies naked on a bed next to his girlfriend who is fully clothed. She comments on his looks, objectifying him. He asks, ‘Do you love me?’ and she returns an ambiguous smile.
Anocha: I’m very conscious of it. It’s very hard for me to talk about why I choose the framing that I do. When I was at Rotterdam with Mundane History, right after the awards show, one of the jury members confided in me that he had assumed the film was made by a gay man. I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ Most of the time, we only get to see bodies from the perspective of male directors. We get used to certain kinds of aesthetics. I don’t know if that’s a good answer. But it’s something that came into my head when you were asking the question. I think a lot of it has to do with casting. When I pick an actor for a specific role, I really feel that it has to do with the vibe I get when I meet them. And I have to trust my instinct about how I’m reacting to that vibe. My idea is that if I can feel this vibe in person, I can capture it on film. The actor who played the character of Ann really has this presence. I feel that she actually looks even better on screen than in person. I can’t really quite explain it. I just trust that the vibe I’m getting will transfer or even multiply when she’s on film.
When I pick an actor for a specific role, I really feel that it has to do with the vibe I get when I meet them. And I have to trust my instinct about how I’m reacting to that vibe…
Paul: I wanted to return to the character of Nong, the young woman who changes jobs. She’s the only character who weaves in and out of the entire film. But we learn almost nothing about her. We only see her performing different service jobs, as a barista, a waitress, a janitor and as a Buddhist nun. She migrates but every situation seems the same for her.
Anocha: The original script for the film chronicled Nong’s life as she moved throughout the country. It’s interesting that you mention migration. Personally, I think a lot about this issue. I was born in a seedy resort town called Pattaya. It’s infamous for Russian mafia, crime, drugs and prostitutes. It’s sort of an ugly place but I’m fond of it. I was conscious of migration early on as a kid growing up there. Many of the prostitutes come from different parts of the country to work there. Also, Nong’s character had a brother who worked in a drag club in Pattaya. My father was friends with a club owner and he would take me to see these types of shows when I was a kid. We filmed a lot in Pattaya but we wound up cutting most of it, except for the theme park and botanical garden scenes at the end of the film. Growing up in a place like Pattaya gave me a different perspective. I think it shaped my worldview and my filmmaking. I try not to include things that are too ‘beautiful’ in my films. For me, it’s immoral to talk only about beautiful things. Even though I’ve been living in Bangkok for a long time now, there’s always a part of me that feels connected to Pattaya.
Paul: This is something of a side note, but I’ve noticed that you make a point to give your films very different titles in English and in Thai. The Thai title of Mundane History translates to The Sparrow. What is the significance of Dao khanong, the Thai title of By The Time It Gets Dark?
Anocha: In general, I don’t really feel that a title needs to be directly linked to a film. It’s more important to me for it to have emotional meaning. The Thai word for ‘sparrow’ signifies both the bird and also ‘commonplace’ or ‘ordinary’. I was interested in this second connotation, which the English word obviously doesn’t have, so this is why I chose Mundane History. Dao khanong is actually the name of a neighbourhood in Bangkok. When Peter is driving on the expressway, you see a sign for the neighbourhood. It’s the last time we see him and it’s presumably where he dies. The name is made up of two words. The literal translation is ‘wild star’. I was attracted to the name because of the juxtaposition of the two words but also because of the disjunction between name and the neighbourhood itself. Dao khanong is an industrial area. It’s the kind of place you’d go only if you happened to live or work there. It’s not a glamorous or thriving place. But for some reason, even though it’s a not very significant place, there are many, many signs in Bangkok pointing there. It’s a mystery. There’s even a junction with signs pointing both left and right to Dao khanong. I was attracted to this association of a place that exists but is largely invisible. It’s like a non-place.
Paul: Near the end of Mundane History, there’s an abrupt shift in the narrative and we are suddenly floating through outer space. Only later do we realise that Ake and Pun have been watching a film at a planetarium. But this shift from domestic drama to the cosmic is quite startling. I thought about this sequence while watching By the Time It Gets Dark, which ends with a particularly ecstatic image that pushes the film’s visual language into pure abstraction.
Anocha: For me, By the Time It Gets Dark is a film about cinema as a medium and about how it can or cannot address trauma. At different points in the film, I reference the history of cinema. This is why I include a scene from A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902) and the scene with Peter naked in bed is a direct homage to Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963). When I started writing the script in 2009, I intended the film to chronicle the transition from celluloid to digital images, but it took so long to finish the film that by the time we completed shooting, the transition had already more or less happened. The argument was over. So, I decided that I didn’t want to be romantic about celluloid and to instead focus on the quality of the digital image. That’s how the idea of pixilation came into the story. The idea was of an image that self-destructs but then transforms into a new image. It’s both an ending and a beginning.