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This article was written By Rowena Santos Aquino on 17 Jun 2019, and is filed under Reviews.

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About Rowena Santos Aquino

Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.

Die Tomorrow (Thailand, 2017)

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit has, in the course of his short filmography, already established his propensity to explore and expand cinematic narrative form in relation to themes of human connection and temporality. From his debut feature 36 (2012) to Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy (2013), and even Freelance (2014, aka Heart Attack) to a lesser extent, Thamrongrattanarit has deftly, playfully, and also delicately incorporated different media to help shape his narrative and formal experimentations: photography in 36, which consists of only thirty-six shots; social media in Mary is Happy, whose situations and storylines are based on four-hundred-plus tweets. Considering also that Thamrongrattanarit’s output teeters between features and documentaries – see The Master (2014), BKN48:Girls Don’t Cry (2018) – his latest feature Die Tomorrow’s merging of documentary and fiction elements should be less surprising and more logical and organic. Continuing also a seeming preference for the episodic with regards to narrative structure, in keeping with the aforementioned themes, Die Tomorrow is an anthology-style film of what would at first glance seem like a morbid subject: snapshots, or snapsequences, as it were, of people in Bangkok the day or moment(s) before they die. But seen through Thamrongrattanarit’s understated yet candid lens, paired with a mindset of finding the dignified, emotion-laden, and meaningfulness of existence precisely in the mundane everyday, what emerges is in fact a deeply thoughtful mosaic on the human relationship to time.

A group of friends in what appears to be a hotel room are hanging out, chatting, reading their horoscopes, and sharing each other’s dreams and desires before their graduation the next morning; they realise that the beer has run out and decide who is the one get some more. A montage of still photos segue to a brother and sister, the latter newly arrived from living abroad, who converse on a rooftop about why she has returned, a rain coming, and what to eat for lunch, while they take down clothes from a clothesline. A man and a woman, who is ill, speak of his week-long trip abroad and what will happen when she is no longer around; as they talk, the latter clips the former’s toenails. A young woman ready for what seems like the shooting of a scene sits and snacks while crew members work all around her. These descriptions refer to some of the sequences that make up the film and are arguably the most memorable ones. By themselves, they are mere fragments lacking focus/purpose. But when individually prefaced/postfaced by intertitles that describe the manner of the person’s death and framed by the larger context of the number of deaths that occur every day/hour/minute/second, these same sequences understandably acquire a pensive tone that in turn takes hold of the spectator.

The film’s segmented structure is perhaps due to the heaviness of the subject. Each sequence is separated from each other by black leader or found footage accompanied by a sound bridge to maintain the thematic connection. As such, the film moves like flipping through the pages of an album/magazine/newspaper or scrolling and clicking through the results of a Google search. The latter simile is meant to be descriptive, not pejorative, as the situations are actually based on newspaper headlines from the last five years at the time of the film’s production. But truth be told, the film focuses not so much on death itself than on the gap between experiential time and chronological time. For the situations, per the above descriptions, are banal, uneventful, even forgettable, if not for the context of death that cloaks them. Moreover, the film refuses to show any images of death or dying, preferring instead to find the poignancy and candidness of death paradoxically in life.

Further contributing to the film’s segmented nature is the incorporation of not only found footage but also documentary interviews. Most emblematic of finding the poignancy and candidness of death paradoxically in life is Thamrongrattanarit’s choice of social actors for these interviews: a young boy who cannot be more than ten-eleven years old and would not want to know of his hour of death in order to live life to the fullest, and a man whose 104th birthday is actually captured on film and who explains why he longs for death to happen. These interviews and footage contrast with the fictional sequences by directly addressing the issue of death. 

But the fictional sequences are no less personal or memorable than the interviews. Each of the fictional sequences is shot handheld, observational-style, and in one long take, as if to distill the moment/situation in question down to its last pulp of feeling and emotion. In this way, the fictional sequences themselves possess their own documentary quality. Even marking the equal weight of the film’s fictional and documentary sequences is the fact that they are all presented in the aspect ratio of 1:1, whereas that of the intertitles, found footage, and other scene transitions is 1.85:1.

Mention must be made of Thamrongrattanarit’s casting of actors, which is just as notable as that of his social actors, for this film. He has worked with some of the most popular, sought-after young stars of Thai cinema and television today and those familiar with his filmography (including short films) will recognise in Die Tomorrow the likes of Patcha Poonpiriya (Mary is Happy), Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Koramit Vajrasthira (36), Sirat Intarachote, Sunny Suwanmethanont (Freelance), Violette Wautier (Freelance), and Jarinporn Joonkiat. As with his above-mentioned features, there is a disarming, convincing naturalness and casualness to everyone’s performances here, further coaxed by the observational mode of shooting and the overarching subject.

Die Tomorrow was shown at BFI Southbank on June 12, 2019 courtesy of Day for Night.