A fragmented and elusive narrative about the scars that a country in a cycle of turmoil can leave on the family at the heart of it, Taiki Sakpisit’s feature debut The Edge of Daybreak is a brooding, doom-laden film that requires the viewer’s fullest attention. Those willing to surrender to its nightmarish allure will be rewarded with a hypnotic but thoroughly satisfying journey through the darker corners of the human soul. History repeats itself, and when that history is as violent as that of Thailand the cycle is a vicious one indeed. Set against two military coups thirty years apart (1976 and 2006, to be precise), Sakpisit’s interest is not in a retelling of events but in the suffocating effect both periods had on one family and by extension on Thailand.
On the verge of yet another political power shift, a woman is brought to a safe house to have a final dinner with her husband before he is smuggled out of the country. The mood at dinner is sombre, the dinner guests’ arrangement resembling a Last Supper. One more heartfelt embrace, and then the woman is left behind with her young daughter. Thirty years before, Ploy (Sunida Ratanakorn), the woman in question, is the daughter and her mother Pailin (Manatsanun Phanlerdwongsakul) the woman left behind by her husband. Ploy’s father, a military man, has been missing for three years (which implicitly links him to yet another junta, ousted by the student-led revolution of 1973), while young Ploy is in a coma after nearly drowning. Pailin is recovering from a nervous breakdown in her husband’s old mansion, and together with her husband’s younger brother (Chalad Na Songkhla) she relives the traumas of their childhood. New traumas are lurking, however, as old powers rise from the belly of the beast.
The Edge of Daybreak is a mood piece, and a sombre mood it is, but its thematics and narrative thread can be made out from its obscure and often intentionally obfuscating imagery. Sakpisit deals as much in symbols as in dialogue, probably even more so. In fact, dialogue is scarce, from the whispered memories of a soldier to a lethargic conversation between lovers, but what is said holds importance, what is shown maybe even more. Clocking in at almost two hours, most frames within that timespan are vital and inform the viewer about an event, a state of mind, or of impending doom, often as much symbolically as directly. Because doom is coming, there can be no mistake about that. The parallels between Ploy and her mother are unmistakable, signaling a cycle of hurt within this family that stands for the cycle of hurt holding a country in stasis. Finding your way through the narrative in this slow-paced film can be a daunting task, but when the moment arrives that the opening voice-over monologue is placed in context, suddenly the fog clears as the story comes full circle.
Captured in Chananun Chotrungroj’s breathtaking high-contrast monochrome cinematography and enveloped in a mixture of Yasuhiro Morinaga’s brooding score and Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s diegetic sound design, the oppression and emotional paralysis of the characters oozes off the screen like thick black blood. Chotrungroj’s camera slowly glides over dilapidated sets rendered in a stark play of light and shadows. Sakpisit turns all of this into an intoxicating viewing experience that paralyzes the viewer as much as it does The Edge of Daybreak‘s characters. Not all is answered, just as not all cycles of violence are broken.
Sakpisit repeatedly has his female characters breaking the fourth wall with almost pleading looks that pierce like a cry for help, for a way out of this constant oppression. Sometimes the viewer is left groping in the dark (often literally) to understand what it all means, as The Edge of Daybreak is made up of shards of a broken family structure that are glued together in a seemingly random arrangement. Repeated shots of dead and slaughtered animals only attain their symbolic meaning once you recognize the pattern. Foreboding visuals may only get a payoff half a film later. But as you let it all wash over you with its pummeling potency, The Edge of Daybreak becomes dread-inducing, dragging you down like a minute-long shot of a draining sink. With this film Sakpisit announces himself at the forefront of Thai cinema by delivering nothing short of a masterpiece.