One of the most compelling shifts in popular film discourse in the digital age has been the onus placed on accuracy. A factual or historical film is now subject to a content-churning rigour – though it’s highly unlikely you’ll soon see the headline ‘What By the Time It Gets Dark Gets Wrong About the 1976 Thammasat University Massacre’ ripple across your social media timelines. Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, which premiered at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival, functions almost as a rebuke to its own historicity. It captures a dreamlike, free-associative mood in response to the memory, rather than the actuality, of an event that saw forty-six students killed, 167 wounded and more than 3000 arrested.Feliz Solomon, ‘Thailand Is Marking the Darkest Day in Its Living Memory’, Time, 6 October 2016, <http://time.com/4519367/thailand-bangkok-october-6-1976-thammasat-massacre-students-joshua-wong/>, accessed 8 August 2017.
These numbers themselves represent some degree of conflict, with survivors of the massacre claiming that the death toll was much closer to 100. Journalist Feliz Solomon describes the political situation that turned a protest into a slaughter:
The campus had been occupied by leftist student demonstrators who opposed the return to Thailand of a former dictator [Thanom Kittikachorn]. The military and arch royalists accused them of being antimonarchical communists, and the military, police and right-wing paramilitary forces had Thammasat surrounded.
With thousands of students under siege, authorities opened fire onto the campus with M-16s, recoilless rifles and grenades. For several hours, these forces – later joined by vigilantes – shot, beat, raped and murdered unarmed students, some as they tried to either flee or surrender. The chaos was used to justify a military coup later that same day.ibid.
To this day, no-one has been held accountable for the massacre. And, while a new guard of students and young people has begun to push back against the Thai military junta’s increasing authoritarianism,Feliz Solomon, ‘Meet the Youthful Face of Resistance to Thailand’s Junta’, Time, 28 June 2017, <http://time.com/4832521/thailand-demoracy-activist-netiwit-chotiphatphaisal/>, accessed 8 August 2017. there’s no sign that Thailand’s complex and troubled political history will become any less so. In June 2017, a military court sentenced a 34-year-old man to a 35-year prison sentence for posting photos and videos to Facebook that purportedly insulted the Thai monarchy.The man was convicted under Thailand’s lese-majesty law – among the strictest in the world – with a guilty plea bringing his sentence down from seventy years; see Feliz Solomon, ‘Thailand Has Sentenced a Man to 35 Years in Prison for Facebook Posts That “Insult the Monarchy”’, Time, 9 June 2017, <http://time.com/4812376/thailand-lese-majeste-facebook-royal-defamation/>, accessed 8 August 2017. The massacre continues to resonate with Thailand’s activist left, but the junta is, expectedly, reluctant to acknowledge ‘October 6’, as it is often called. One young liberal, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal – who made headlines for refusing to bow before a statue of a dead king – claims that, while people can commemorate the event, ‘in textbooks, in schools, they don’t want you to know’.Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, quoted in Solomon, ‘Thailand Is Marking the Darkest Day in Its Living Memory’, op. cit.; see also Michael Peel, ‘Students Defy Thai Rulers to Mark Thammasat University Massacre’, Financial Times, 5 October 2016, <https://www.ft.com/content/244a9ea8-8a00-11e6-8cb7-e7ada1d123b1>, accessed 8 August 2017.
This historical and current sociopolitical context is important to mention because By the Time It Gets Dark gives you virtually none of this information. For a film that is ostensibly about October 6,Suwichakornpong explains that ‘the impetus for By the Time It Gets Dark was the 6th October Massacre in Thailand in 1976’; see Electric Eel Films, By the Time It Gets Dark press kit, 2016, p. 10. it has very little desire to educate or quote or reel off references, as this essay has done thus far. Instead, the approach it employs is more broadly sensorial, perhaps slightly ethnographic, and coolly oblique.
Suwichakornpong’s work tends towards a kind of academic experimentalism. The vignetted quality of this film’s narrative, if it can even be called one, as well as the casting of multiple actors to play certain roles recalls Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan cine-essay/biopic I’m Not There. Much like Haynes, Suwichakornpong is evidently fascinated by cinema as a medium. Her disassembly of convention in By the Time It Gets Dark showcases a preoccupation with film’s specific capacities, while also asking a crucial question: with boundless information ever available at our fingertips, what value – what integrity – does cinema as an artform have in terms of representing ‘truth’ at the expense of ‘fact’?
One of the ironies of By the Time It Gets Dark is that the digital world has a minimal presence in the film. But it looms on the peripheries in part because of its absence. When it intrudes, it has an irrupting effect – chiefly, in the form of a phone call that brings tragic news about dreamy young actor and singer Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri). He is central to one of the three main story threads in the film, and his is perhaps the most contemporary in style and content. Yet we first encounter him through a sojourn to a tobacco farm, which is shot in a kind of lax observational style. It feels, for a moment, like a sudden shift to documentary, until the camera zeroes in on Peter, following him to a plane and then to a lush Bangkok apartment. He reads a script and is soon in a studio space recording a music video for a melancholy acoustic pop song entitled ‘Lie’. That Peter sings, ‘Please don’t lie to me,’ as we see the machine of a music video shoot rumble behind him, embellishing the scene with costume changes, props and balloons, is evidence of the film’s desire to constantly contradict itself.
In fact, there’s an extreme consciousness of artifice, with shots frequently looking in at people indoors, nature reflected on windows to highlight that something is fundamentally missing in the structures of their lives. In one of the film’s opening shots, a group of people gathers to pray at a dilapidated house in an open field. From inside the dwelling, the camera catches a window with a single upper-left pane missing, a sunlit tree beyond it. Suwichakornpong seems to suggest that everything natural and truthful is either liminal or out of reach. Peter’s scenes repeatedly straddle the line between real and performance; suddenly, he’s in a cockpit dressed as a pilot, or he’s smoking in silence in his car.
Over lunch, Peter tells his friends about an offer he has received to work on an indie film; the part was written with him in mind. He then lies in bed with a woman, asking her, ‘Do you love me?’ She simply smiles and turns away from him. Scenes repeatedly disorient the viewer, and it should be noted that, even in this piece, they are not being recounted in edited or chronological order.
Elsewhere, we watch as the director receives news of Peter’s death, via the aforementioned phone call, in a screening room. Footage of Peter undergoing colour grading continues to play silently on the diegetic screen; he may have passed away, but there he is, talking and driving in cinematic form. The footage is a haunting palimpsest, bearing the excruciating association of watching the posthumous work of actors who have died in tragic or untimely circumstances. In the contemporary West, actors are now being temporarily revived through digital effects,See, for example, Joseph Walsh, ‘Rogue One: The CGI Resurrection of Peter Cushing Is Thrilling – but Is It Right?’, The Guardian, 16 December 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2016/dec/16/rogue-one-star-wars-cgi-resurrection-peter-cushing>, accessed 10 August 2017. as if shaken from the earth.
In By the Time It Gets Dark’s main story, from which the film nevertheless deviates endlessly, a director, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), and a writer, Taew (Rassami Paoluengtong), arrive at a country home; their goal is to have the former dramatise the latter’s experiences as an activist. Ann, perhaps a refracted proxy for Suwichakornpong, questions Taew almost guilelessly. At one point, she calls Taew ‘living history’, to which the writer responds, ‘There’s one thing you’re wrong about: I’m not living history. I’m just a survivor.’
We see a brief account of Taew’s youth when she joined the movement. By the Time It Gets Dark never hints at whether this is a flashback or perhaps a part of Ann’s prospective biopic, but it is perhaps more interesting as both. We see students discussing the news that the rector of the university has been offered a cabinet position in government, and one suggests, ‘At least an academic is better than a soldier.’ They hang a banner bearing the words ‘Get out, dictator!’ and put up posters at the university overnight in preparation for a doomed protest. Suddenly, the film cuts back to an adult Taew doused in the brightness of a grocery store; Artforum’s Nick Pinkerton describes this as ‘the contrast between plucky, before-the-revolution youth and late middle age amid the sterile bounty of global capitalism’.Nick Pinkerton, ‘Lies, All Lies’, Artforum, 14 April 2017, <https://www.artforum.com/film/id=67736>, accessed 8 August 2017.
Up to this point, the film is relatively straightforward, but Ann soon becomes overwhelmed by the task – she earlier links her desire to make films to the mundane quality of her own life – and begins to hallucinate while walking through the forest near the house. She sees a child in a bear costume who, after she looks away and back, has become herself; soon, she slumps down at the base of a tree, an artificially glowing mushroom pulsating next to her body. She later awakes, crying, and is served tea by two well-attired female ghosts. She then recounts, at length, an instance in her childhood when she practised telekinesis, saying that she once succeeded in moving an empty glass but the power ‘never came back again’, perhaps because she told a friend at school. It’s here that the story first shifts from Ann and Taew to introduce Peter. The transition occurs using footage of the mushrooms from Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, followed by time-lapse visuals of growing fungi, grainy celluloid imagery of a bird and a shot of a petri dish.
After part of Peter’s story, the film returns to Ann and Taew (now played by Inthira Charoenpura and Penpak Sirikul, respectively). This iteration of Taew is formally dressed, her hair pulled tightly back. She is stony rather than weary, and Charoenpura’s Ann seems visibly unnerved by this. They repeat verbatim most of the dialogue from the encounter shown earlier in the film, with many of the same set-ups, though in a truncated form. They’re each more made-up and more brightly lit; as Pinkerton observes, this is ‘the pop movie version, not the one for festival export’.ibid.
Subsequently, there is a third Ann (Soraya Nakasuwan) – and that’s the version who has cast Peter. Each Ann is played by a female Thai director, suggesting that the struggle to fill the void of history that October 6 represents is as much a symptom of history’s masculine bent as anything else. Each seems destined to be unable to complete her project.
By the Time It Gets Dark ends by returning to a recurrent figure. Hovering on the fringes, Nong (Atchara Suwan) appears in a series of jobs. She is a barista in a countryside cafe at which Ann and Taew are patrons; there, she suggests that Taew be the author of her own story, as opposed to ceding it to someone else. She is also a cleaner at the gym where Peter is seen swimming laps, and waits tables on a cruise ship travelling along the Chao Phraya River. As Nong takes a break, Suwichakornpong and cinematographer Ming Kai Leung contrast the nearby traditional architecture with its more modern surrounds.
The film’s final scenes set Nong as the waitress against another iteration of her: as a white-clad, shaved-headed nun. She is seen sweeping a monastery, until the film cuts back to her as a waitress walking through some kind of light festival, with coloured fluorescents flashing in patterns overhead. We see the backs of nuns’ heads as they pray, their cropped hair and plain white robes a cleansing contrast to the artifice present in the other characters’ lives. These images directly juxtapose the transcendental as it is contained in religious spaces with the experiential transcendence born of sensory stimulation. Nong enters a nightclub and dances; this shot begins to fracture and glitch out in a crash of noise, before cutting suddenly to a shot of bucolic countryside, saturated in colour, as the sky slowly turns from pink back to blue. This normalised image lingers – briefly, quietly, truthfully – before Suwichakornpong and editors Lee Chatametikool and Machima Ungsriwong cut to black. This overtly filmic moment almost erases the society built atop the landscape: a reminder that history doesn’t evolve so much as self-manufacture, often with cinema’s help.
By the Time It Gets Dark feels more successful as a vision in retrospect than it does in the moment. Suwichakornpong’s disjointed approach takes some time to settle in the viewer’s mind. While her work is often obsequiously compared to that of countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul – their rhythms are somewhat similar, and he receives special thanks in the end credits here – these final sequences declare her vision distinct. Whereas Weerasethakul’s films seem to reach out towards nature, such as when an amoeba swims through the sky in Cemetery of Splendour (2015), Suwichakornpong observes the natural detachedly and from a distance.
It is in this way that Suwichakornpong distinguishes herself as a filmmaker. Given that this is only her second feature, the elasticity that the form assumes in her hands signals a great capacity to crumple cinema up like a scrawled-on piece of paper and reconstruct it in new ways. By the Time It Gets Dark is largely quiet and solemnified, in keeping with its subject matter. The film ends with such a sudden, forceful and sublime rupture in order to remind us that it is disruptions like this that can break – or make – history.
|1||Feliz Solomon, ‘Thailand Is Marking the Darkest Day in Its Living Memory’, Time, 6 October 2016, <http://time.com/4519367/thailand-bangkok-october-6-1976-thammasat-massacre-students-joshua-wong/>, accessed 8 August 2017.|
|3||Feliz Solomon, ‘Meet the Youthful Face of Resistance to Thailand’s Junta’, Time, 28 June 2017, <http://time.com/4832521/thailand-demoracy-activist-netiwit-chotiphatphaisal/>, accessed 8 August 2017.|
|4||The man was convicted under Thailand’s lese-majesty law – among the strictest in the world – with a guilty plea bringing his sentence down from seventy years; see Feliz Solomon, ‘Thailand Has Sentenced a Man to 35 Years in Prison for Facebook Posts That “Insult the Monarchy”’, Time, 9 June 2017, <http://time.com/4812376/thailand-lese-majeste-facebook-royal-defamation/>, accessed 8 August 2017.|
|5||Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, quoted in Solomon, ‘Thailand Is Marking the Darkest Day in Its Living Memory’, op. cit.; see also Michael Peel, ‘Students Defy Thai Rulers to Mark Thammasat University Massacre’, Financial Times, 5 October 2016, <https://www.ft.com/content/244a9ea8-8a00-11e6-8cb7-e7ada1d123b1>, accessed 8 August 2017.|
|6||Suwichakornpong explains that ‘the impetus for By the Time It Gets Dark was the 6th October Massacre in Thailand in 1976’; see Electric Eel Films, By the Time It Gets Dark press kit, 2016, p. 10.|
|7||See, for example, Joseph Walsh, ‘Rogue One: The CGI Resurrection of Peter Cushing Is Thrilling – but Is It Right?’, The Guardian, 16 December 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2016/dec/16/rogue-one-star-wars-cgi-resurrection-peter-cushing>, accessed 10 August 2017.|
|8||Nick Pinkerton, ‘Lies, All Lies’, Artforum, 14 April 2017, <https://www.artforum.com/film/id=67736>, accessed 8 August 2017.|