An allegorical and existential enquiry of a nation’s obliviousness to the consequences of history, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s enigmatic, bold and trippy By the Time It Gets Dark is an avant-garde experiment on time, space and memory that defies any conventional form of narrative.
In the film’s opening scenes, the audience witnesses the restaging of the 1976 Thammasat University massacre in Bangkok; tortured bodies are seen trembling and recoiling in the dark; a director tries to coordinate the scene; grainy black-and-white shots of the students’ wounded limbs create the illusion of watching archival footage. A question lingers throughout the entire film: can art reconstruct the past and examine a nation’s history? Can cinema transcend its inherent artificiality and operate as a manifestation of the elasticity of time and memory?
History repeats itself as past and present are intertwined in an unruly and never-ending circle. Because of the current government censorship in Thailand, Suwichakornpong explores the historical event indirectly and comments on its consequences in a refreshingly elusive way. This is a directorial choice that subverts and essentially redefines the medium’s classical tendency to approach political issues in a conventionally tidy (in most cases flat-out bland) and heavy-handed manner that lacks any nuance or thought-provoking suggestiveness. It comes as no surprise that her compatriot, Apichatpong Weerasethakul [Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Cemetery of Splendour (2015)], whose directorial trademark involves blurring the fantastical (and mythological) with the realistic, also adopts an opaque and cryptic approach to examining the nation’s political turmoil and ignominious past. Weerasethakul, a modern master whom I cannot praise enough for his groundbreaking vision and revolutionary storytelling, makes films that are – first and foremost – personal, but one can also marvel at their sly and complex political subtext. Rougher but no less intricate, Suwichakornpong’s work is similarly a bold political statement as well as a painfully realistic depiction of an artist’s existential crisis.
The director’s ethereal and self-reflexive second feature refuses to adapt to a linear and straightforward study of its thematic core; the film consists of fragmentary non-sequiturs and incomplete filmic excerpts that blur the line between fiction and reality, and therein lies its genius: Suwichakornpong examines the lingering trauma of the past and the haunting traces of memory by incessantly deconstructing and reforming the film’s various narrative threads.
A director (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) goes to her country house and conducts interviews with a celebrated writer and activist (Rassami Paoluengtong) who survived the massacre. The scene of the two women’s first meeting is reenacted in the second half of the film but the tone is different and strangely unnerving. An example of the film’s artful “meta” commentary on repetitiousness and artificiality, this scene can be considered the result of a different filmic perspective and/or a self-referential reimagination – and reconstruction – of the exact same scene. Is this merely playful filmmaking or does Suwichakornpong try to reveal something deeper and potentially unsettling?
The film’s iconographic images construct a barrage of cryptic visual excerpts that highlight its metanarrative and structural fluidity: haunting shots of the back of Buddhists’ heads; a dreamlike sequence where a monastery and a nightclub merge into a bizarre and hallucinatory homogenous entity; a visually striking reformation of a landscape that is reminiscent of sequences from Jean-Luc Godard’s late period avant-garde film essays; a close-up of a woman’s elusive facial expression that turns out to be a shot that is being edited and color graded by another filmmaker; the absurd shooting of an antithetical yet wondrously exhilarating music video; a seemingly irrelevant non-fiction sequence concerning tobacco production; the moulding of bread and the subsequent detour to a sequence that explores the otherworldly magic of growing mushrooms; a playful and oneiric scene from a Méliés film; flashbacks to the activist’s revolutionary days, are merged with a metafictional tale of modern chaos and urban alienation.
The figure of a young woman in many guises – a waitress, a cleaning lady, a monk – haunts the film and brings all the aforementioned narrative shards together. This melancholy character could possibly represent a person’s desperate longing for enlightenment or could be the embodiment of modern society’s aimlessness. Most importantly, though, her existence in the film could be interpreted as an allegory of the individual’s reconciliation with their past and their subsequent spiritual awakening.
The various political and social layers are brilliantly put together, but it is the film’s existential (personal) dimension that is the most intriguing one. The tangential subplots not only reflect the repressive political climate in Thailand, but also demonstrate the consumption of human souls by a society that is empty and excruciatingly impersonal. Dwarfed by the achievements of the activist – who is considered “living history” – as well as the legacy of the past, the film’s characters are presented as aimless figures, trying to find meaning in a sterile environment. During a short-term power outage, two women share a beautifully touching and intimate discussion until the house’s artificial lights come on and this brief moment of emotional nakedness fades away and the characters immediately return to an awkward state of loneliness and lack of genuine communication. An incredibly moving soliloquy about one character’s inability to perform telekinesis becomes – in yet another intriguing disintegration of conventional narrative form – the (premature) emotional climax of the story that punctuates the sense of disillusionment and emotional numbness.
Is this our modern times’ idea of normality? Can a human being truly exist in a society that is indifferent to its own deeply wounded past and threatening future?
The narrative threads are incomplete, startling, abrupt. This abstract structure may be incongruous at first, and the film’s insistent refusal to follow any conventional pattern may frustrate several viewers, but Suwichakornpong’s approach is so admirably confident that one doesn’t have any choice other than joining her and delving into this bizarrely original and cathartic cinematic journey. By adopting the undefined and irregular nature of a dissolving dream or a blurry memory, Suwichakornpong’s deeply humanistic and dreamlike filmmaking constructs an amalgamation of characterological studies and expressionistic structural experiments that never descend into an empty exercise in style.
This is challenging and reinvigorating avant-garde cinema in its purest form; any rational attempt to make sense of its parts is fruitless and, quite frankly, unnecessary.
Suwichakornpong’s feature has lingered in my mind for a very long time. Its boldly original and meditative take on modern-day ennui and aimlessness transcends its extraneous formalistic experiments, turning the film into a profound and emotionally resonant commentary on the slipperiness of memory and the repetitiousness of history. The past is a shadow looming over the present, and even art may not be able to escape from its own limitations. Is cinema just an artifice after all?