Enslaving Ourselves to Digital Technology: On Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s 36 and Freelance

Over the last decade, one of the most singular cinematic voices in Asian Cinema has emerged from Thailand – thirty-five-year-old filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. Since his screenwriting and directorial debut in 2009, his films, a mixture of shorts and features, often ruminate on the intricate, messy relationship between man and digital technology in contemporary times. His first feature 36 (2012) and his fourth, Freelance (aka Heart Attack) (2015) centre their narratives around thirty-somethings whose personal and professional lives are defined by the high tech gadgets they use and are consumed by. These films raise questions of boundaries, mental and physical health, and isolation, even though their protagonists are more than ever connected to people in their lives.

If these concerns brand Nawapol as a maverick filmmaker of serious cinema, 36 and Freelance prove otherwise, even as the themes sear through. Though they lie on the opposite ends of filmmaking methods – 36, a small-budget art-house film and Freelance, financed by the biggest studio in Thailand, is a glossy, commercial genre film – both abide by Nawapol’s distinct cinematic language and have great re-viewing value. One can watch them when cosily tucked in at night, one can watch them to appreciate Nawapol’s simple, serene and supremely effective story telling ability, or one can watch them when in the mood for a quirky yet melancholic take on the contemporary romantic dramedy.

36 opens with a woman, Sai (Koramit Vajrasthira), busily clicking pictures of a rundown physical space. Revealed to be an unused building, she discusses difficulties the place can pose for their shoot. She is a film location scout and has been inspecting old, dilapidated structures with her new colleague, art director Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad). She examines their viability checking the photographs taken on her digital camera, rather than seeing with her own eyes and getting a feel of the place. Expectedly, she is at loss when, later, the director tells her it’s the atmosphere of that building that makes him want to film there, not its physical details.

Sai has come to heavily rely on her digital gadgets. Owning one disk drive for every year, she tells Oom she stores everything she sees via her pictures. Assuredly she affirms she has captured her moments for eternity. When Oom asks her if she remembers everything she shoots, she vehemently says yes. Probed further, she smilingly bluffs her way out. It is when one of her disks fails, she slowly comes to comprehend her complete dependence on physically available ‘infinite’ memory. Unable to remember that period using her own recollection, she worries to her friend that the whole year of her life has been wiped off. For Sai, her own memory does not exist. She has completely disowned her own experiential memory that lasts a lifetime, as her friends attest. Her ability to live life first-hand is lost, and she holds onto her pictures as her experiences, captured for eternity.

Nawapol crafts this story gently even as he frames every scene static with strange camera positions that brazenly partially or completely block out characters. Action occurs off and on screen. Oom is never shown in complete, perhaps just like Sai eventually remembers him, in vague. Access to digital storage devices today offers an illusion of memories being with us forever. But what happens when memories have not taken form in the first place, as experiences haven’t been lived through, just artificial physical representations of those moments clicked and saved. Sai realizes this heartbreakingly, when her drive breaks. Nawapol sharply, elegantly details this changing nature of memory, ours and our increasing reluctance to use it by depending on digital storages. 36 is a tender, thoughtful film, prodding us to question how we live in today’s times, where we bury ourselves in endless saved images in the false understanding that these are our memorable memories, when in fact we are completely empty.

The protagonist of Freelance, Yoon (Sunny Suwanmethanont) also has an empty life. He describes himself a graphic designer but is essentially an independent, supremely overworked digital photoshopper, sculpting ‘perfect’ human bodies for print ads. Primarily working for local clients, Yoon is desperate to make it to the big league of photoshopping for international brands. Known in the industry for his very quick and perfect turnarounds, he refuses to slow down, pushing himself to work more, spending nearly all his waking hours in front of his large-screen computer, communicating via Skype on his laptop placed adjacent, or his smartphone. Self-designated as an invaluable resource for his clients, Yoon fears any slowdown and is unable to create healthy boundaries for himself. He works with Je (Violette Wautier) who ruthlessly ensures he always delivers even as she firmly safeguards her own work-life balance..

When Je gets Adidas as his next client, he has already messed up his body by living off fast food, hardcore energy drinks and has a serene, no nonsense government doctor, Imm (Davika Hoorne), step into his life asking him to question his extreme, unhealthy way of living. Digitally designing ‘desirable’ bodies for ads that endorse products and a way of life that promise good health, Yoon becomes the embodiment of that very lie. He isn’t simply a workaholic but consumes those very products to sustain himself every single day. His digitized popping nerves and muscles on athletic bodies in reality translate to rashes, insomnia, and ultimately near complete heart failures on his own body. Nawapol portrays Yoon with great empathy and sass (Yoon’s internal monologues are snappy and so very relatable) as he incisively probes how technology is used today to weave a reel, onscreen, physical ideal even as the pursuance of it endangers one’s life. It is all pervasive around us, maniacally desired and sought after.

None of these body image politics is a revelation to the viewer, but for Yoon it is. Nawapol reveals it gradually through droll humour, economically handled dramatic and emotional arcs that confidently rely on silences, and acerbic yet heartfelt conversations. Nawapol’s visual staging captures Yoon’s exasperated, awkward, and deadpan expressions in assured close-ups while coolly blanking out the other characters in a scene. Ultimately how Yoon continues his journey is positive yet ambiguous. Yet this cinematic journey that Nawapol crafts for the viewer is a unique, unmissable experience.