Looming large over Anocha Suwichakornpong's latest film is the military-led massacre of student demonstrators at a university in Bangkok in October 1976. Expanding her premise into a reflection on an artist's challenge in portraying reality, the director's By the Time It Gets Dark is a magical, melancholic ode to the intellectual's struggle against the forces of history.
Offering a shape-shifting narrative revolving around the making of a film about the 1976 clampdown, Anocha ushers in protagonists who regularly change identities, scenes that play out twice in different ways with different actors, and a powerful pixelated meltdown representing the sensory overload in a modern media-saturated world. A demanding but ultimately rewarding piece, By the Time It Gets Dark should get many a green light on the festival circuit after its screenings in Locarno, Busan and Hong Kong.
The film begins with scenes unfolding in three settings. In the here and now, a group of people arrive at a rundown house, take photographs of it and pray. Then, in black and white, young men and women, stripped to their underwear, are seen lying face down as gun-wielding soldiers walk over them in a hangar which, as it turns out, is actually a brightly lit soundstage. Finally, back in color, two young students from a past age saunter around a grassland, their romantic stroll rendered somewhat less serene by their discussion of social activism.
This prologue, as it turns out, represents the preparations that go into a filmmaker's attempts to come up with a fictionalized version of that tragedy — now known as the Thassanat University massacre — four decades ago. After the title card, the first "proper" sequence features the director (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) settling down in a rural holiday villa with Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), a middle-aged writer who took part in those doomed students' demonstrations in the 1970s.
But the director is visibly out of her depth in coping with her heavy subject matter, as she is chastised by her interviewee. With the director perhaps serving as her proxy — the character is named in the credit as "Ann" — Anocha's premise is clear: How can anyone — an artist, an intellectual, a modern sophisticate — truly understand such traumatic experiences while entrenched in a comfortable reality so distant and different from that of the past?
Faced with her own inabilities, Ann's mind goes off: her delirious dreams — of a strange encounter in a forest — take over her life and the narrative, which is jolted out of sync with images from George Melies' A Trip to the Moon, time-lapse shots of fast-growing plants, and shots from the 2009 Thai docudrama Agrarian Utopia. From this moment onward, the pic becomes ever more surreal with every sequence. Seemingly shifting to another terrain, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) is seen leaving work at a rural tobacco plant. As he drives away, blabbers on his shiny new smartphone and then boards a flight, we realize the character is, in fact, a handsome model-cum-actor.
Arriving in his Bangkok condo, he begins to read a script. Cut to a more melodramatic version of the initial encounter in the holiday villa, as a more glamorous version of Ann (Inthira Charoenpura) arrives at a much more well-adorned version of the same holiday villa with an aristocratic version of Taew (Penpak Sirikul), the pair basically repeating the same lines as their "real" counterparts.
But this is not the final Ann. Anocha cuts ever more quickly to a montage of scenes set in wildly different terrains and tones — a prayer hall, a hectic discotheque — before the increasingly warped reality finally unravels in what could be described as a stunning digital version of the melting-film effect from the celluloid-cinema age.
Connecting all these different scenes is an unnamed character (Atchara Suwan), who always appears on the margins of the main narrative as the invisible laborer around whom the middle-class protagonists talk, play and party: a waitress at a countryside eatery, a cleaner at a swish urban hotel, a monk doing chores at a monastery. Her mysterious life is never clearcut or clarified, but she's part of what makes By the Time It Gets Dark a piece of surreal, visual poetry.
And it's utterly beautiful to look at: Ming Kai Leung's camerawork captures the tone of every different sequence, while Lee Chatametikool and Machima Ungsriwong step up to Anocha's challenge by piecing all her ideas into a complicated but coherent visual whole.
Production company: Electric Eel Films
Cast: Visra Vichit-Vadakan, Rassami Paoluengtong, Atchara Suwan
Director-screenwriter: Anocha Suwichakornpong
Producers: Soros Sukhum, Lee Chatametikool, Pithai Smithsuth, Benjawan Somsin, Anocha Suwichakornpong
Executive producers: Chayamporn Taeratanachai, Edward Gunawan, Pithai Smithsuth
Director of photography: Ming Kai Leung
Production designers: Parina Moongmaiphol, Vikrom Janpanus
Costume designer: Rujirumpai Mongkol
Editors: Lee Chatametikool, Machima Ungsriwong
Music: Wuttipong Leetrakul
Casting directors: Tippawan Narintorn, Soifa Saenkhamkon, Tulapop Seanjaroen
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
International sales: Luxbox