Lies, All Lies

Nick Pinkerton on Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark

Anocha Suwichakornpong, By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes.

IF, LIKE SOME OF US, you have grown comatose through repeat exposure to the cluster of festival fodder clichés often grouped under the unsexy sobriquet “slow cinema,” there’s reason to feel antsy at the opening of By the Time It Gets Dark, the second feature by director Anocha Suwichakornpong.

Stick with it. After rolling out a few fragmentary, ambiguously related scenes, the movie settles into something like a straightforward narrative: Two women arrive at a rental home in the Thai countryside to rusticate. They are age-appropriate to be mother and daughter, but in due time it’s revealed that the younger, Ann (filmmaker Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a writer-director interviewing the elder, Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), a former student activist who lived through the turbulent 1970s, to make a film about her life.

Alrighty then. Looks like all the makings are in place for a lugubrious study in soured revolutionary dreams and mutual intergenerational incomprehension against a gently whispering pastoral backdrop, fit to be greeted by faint praise with hastily Wiki’d references to the 1976 Thammasat University massacre. (I had to look it up.) But then something funny happens. There’s a flashback that might also be a flash-forward to a completed version of the planned movie, showing us a young Taew (Penpak Sirikul) just as her political consciousness is developing, papering campus grounds with flyers by night, a scene which concludes a defiant gesture of solidarity—and then a hard cut to the elder Taew, walking the aisles of an overbright, well-stocked grocery store.

In this moment it’s clear that Suwichakornpong knows how to cut provocatively, with real intention. Here, the juxtaposition is relatively cut-and-dried—the contrast between plucky, before-the-revolution youth and late middle age amid the sterile bounty of global capitalism—but as the film proceeds, she moves toward harder lateral leaps and stranger, more complicated collisions of imagery. The decisive rupture comes shortly after Ann appears to have a breakdown, a crisis of creative conscience and competence capped by an encounter with local mushrooms which may or may not have some hallucinogenic properties. Ann and Taew are abruptly left behind, and the film abandons its arthouse-realist mode to become, seemingly, a straight documentary about tobacco farming in rural Thailand. From watching laborers bundle tobacco leaves and pack them into curing chambers, we break away to follow one laborer in particular who, his day’s work finished, hops on a plane and goes back to a posh apartment offering a breathtaking view of Bangkok. This honest laborer, it transpires, is in fact a famous actor, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), and once back from his never-explained holiday among the proletariat he cracks open a script newly arrived in the mail and hits the studio to record a saccharine pop song with the crooned chorus “Please don’t lie to me”—an honest-to-God musical number in a movie which, for its first hour, seemed no more likely to contain a CGI monster.

Many more zigs and zags remain ahead, but by this point Suwichakornpong’s methodology has become clear. By the Time It Gets Dark, a repeatedly self-immolating work, is a browbeating interrogation of the constant and necessary deceits of the filmmaking apparatus, particularly when applied to the challenge of filming history—it elicits the viewer’s confidence and credulity time and again, even seeming to dupe itself, but in the end it just has to lie to you. That the initial straight narrative is unsatisfactory is very much part of the point; the viewer’s frustration is echoed by that of Suwichakornpong and her on-screen alter ego, Ann, and from here the film strikes out repeatedly in different directions only to reach the same dead end. It has the feeling of successive drafts, of sketches balled up and thrown away, an engine struggling to turn over. This shape-shifting, skin-shedding form dramatizes the struggle of an artist to find a means to understand a historical trauma to which she has no direct connection. And, of course, that sense of witnessing a struggle in real time is a lie too, for a film is always the result of deliberation and can never be the direct record of an act of artistic hesitation in the way that, say, a late Cézanne may be.

Anocha Suwichakornpong, By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes.

Suwichakornpong confesses to this imposture, as she confesses to her deceits compulsively throughout the film: We’ll return to Ann and Taew, seen arriving again in the same house, though now played by Inthira Charoenpura and Penpak Sirikul, hitting the same marks and going through much the same lines, though this time the actresses are a little more made up, the lighting a little brighter, the shooting providing more angles on the action—it’s the pop movie version, not the one for festival export, the sort of thing regularly financed by the Hubert Bals Fund. (Which, in fact, By the Time It Gets Dark was.) Each layer of artifice that is peeled back reveals another underneath. From Peter’s penthouse we move to the cockpit of a Boeing 737NG, which is actually a flight simulator, and the proximity of these scenes calls into question the very reality of the view from his window. Later, while watching a candid moment between Peter and his lover, we suddenly find ourselves in a postproduction suite where that same scene is going through the digital color-grading process wherein its palette is tampered with, usually to make the colors truer to life, which is nearly complete when a phone call comes in to inform the filmmaker (Soraya Nakasuwan, identified in the press notes as yet another Ann) that Peter has been killed in a car accident.

After the news sinks in, the work continues, and Peter is again alive on the screen. The moving image is capable of resurrecting the dead, turning pop crooners into day laborers, or making an amateur into a starlet. The outlier in a cast with varying degrees of experience in the film industry is Achtara Suwan, who recurs on the fringes of the different narrative strands, playing a variety of young women working banal odd jobs: a coffee-shop barista; an employee at the rooftop gym where Peter swims laps; and a waitress on a cruise ship that glides through Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River, seen gazing off at the passing spires of the Wat Pho temple while taking a break topside. (Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung, asked to work in several distinct registers, distinguishes himself in each.)

Encapsulated in this moment is something that draws together the disparate characters (in their disparate incarnations): a sense of longing to connect to an authentic experience outside the limitations imposed by their individual identities, whether in Peter’s descent among the laborers or Ann’s attempt to find a point of access to Taew’s lived memory of tragedy. While issues of representation—gender, race, sexual preference, nationality, class—command an increasingly large portion of the discourse, in the story of Ann and Taew, Suwichakornpong rifles around one aspect of representation that tends to get short shrift: the hurdle of presentism, and the difficulty (or impossibility) of stepping out of one’s own timeline.

Ann and Taew are, like Suwichakornpong, both educated Thai women, but this doesn’t make the transfer of an experienced past from one to the other any easier. Facts, and the illusion of mastery that comes with them, have never been so readily accessible—how easy would it be for me to masquerade as a historian of the Thammasat University massacre?—and with this comes an illusory sense that history can be held in one’s hand, condescended to, as so many films do. Suwichakornpong achingly recognizes the gulf between pseudo-knowledge and lived wisdom, and it is in this liminal zone that she has chosen to work.

By the Time It Gets Dark is, sporadically, a brilliant work, and also an unrepeatable performance, a dead-end of sorts, something that the film’s finale seems aware of. The movie doesn’t end so much as self-destruct in a hail of digital noise that bridges a final, bravura leap from a packed dance floor to a bucolic landscape whose purple sky gradually shades from pink to blue, a last reminder of the contrivance of the cinematic apparatus, for even the self-evident truth that the sky is blue is only true if the technicians conspire for it to be so. Where does a young filmmaker go after trying on and discarding every prevalent mode of narrative filmmaking? I have no idea, but a thorough teardown is always a good place to start.

Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark opens Friday, April 14, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.