The emotion and intention that drove the making of Puangsoi Aksornsawang’s debut feature film are clear and affecting: the passing and memory of her mother. Nakorn-Sawan (meaning “paradise city”) is a work that is at once a dedication to Aksornsawang’s mother and an expression of her individual artistic sensibility. One could even say an expression of Aksornsawang’s ambition, her essayistic film weaving together as it does documentary and fictional elements whose end result will no doubt be beyond the noncommittal spectator. Admittedly, a first viewing of Nakorn-Sawan, with its penchant for long, static takes; lethargic pacing; and absence of a clear-cut narrative that are the hallmarks of independent Thai filmmaking, even for the initiated is a bit heavy going. The film thus merits repeat viewings, which enable one to pierce through the languid and towards the film’s subtle insights and working-through concerning issues of death, memory, and artistic creation, all of which coalesce in the figure of Aksornsawang’s mother.
If a first
viewing finds the alternation of documentary and fictional footages rough and
rather random, subsequent viewings afford a greater understanding of their
arrangement and ultimately the dialogue that they generate on time, life/death,
and creative expression, again, anchored by Aksornsawang’s mother. On the one
hand, the documentary sequences consist of home movie footage shot by
Aksornsawang each time she returned to her country to see her family while she
was studying abroad in Germany. They feature mainly her parents, either
individually or separately, often seated and speaking with Aksornsawang while
she records them with her camera. Moreover, these sequences are presented
chronologically, beginning with footage of her parents when they were still
relatively young. Near the film’s half-hour mark, the footage of her mother
clearly shows that time has passed and age has crept up on her. As Aksornsawang
captures her in a medium close-up shot looking at family pictures and
discussing their temporal contexts, she casually utters with regards to one
photo, “Those were good days when I was still healthy.” And just like that,
simply and bluntly with this nonchalant remark, Aksornsawang also captures how
illness too has crept up beside her mother, along with age. Neither
Aksornsawang nor her mother pursues this point further, however. And the film
follows suit, preferring instead to let such information hover within the film and
above the spectator’s viewing experience and allow them to do what they want
On the other
hand, the fictional sequences critically, poetically, and quite intimately
reflect the documentary ones. They revolve around a young woman, Aoey (Prapamonton
Eiamchan), who has
taken some time from her visual arts studies in Germany to return to Thailand
and attend the funeral rites for her deceased mother, along with her father (Yuwabun
presumably, her aunt and younger sister. They are all aboard a small boat,
accompanied by Buddhist monks, for the rites.
Given that the disclosure of her mother’s illness occurs practically at the halfway point, the sequence is undoubtedly the film’s emotional and thematic pivot. In fact, this documentary sequence and another one with her mother in a later period, in which she states just as frankly and simply that, “It’s lonely to be ill,” significantly bracket a fictional sequence that involves the performance of said rites. Taken together, these sequences ever so quietly, calmly yet effectively convey a deep sadness (and a myriad other conflicting emotions) as well as resolve to confront the death of a loved one, without the need of voice-over or dialogue to spell it all out.
Among the film’s other fictional sequences that intertwine with the documentary ones are of a man who seems to be the only one working at a T-shirt factory; another man working at a rubber plantation from night to daybreak; and a woman getting a massage and who ends up talking of her sister. Set against the documentary sequences, these fictional counterparts seem randomly inserted. But all of them actually touch upon and/or refer back to some aspect of Aksornsawang’s family shared earlier in the film. Furthermore, a montage of stills of the film’s production, including cast and crew, appearing later even refers to the film itself. Thus, despite (or in the face of) the finality, as it were, of its main subject of death, the film itself is a living, constantly self-referring/-reflexive text. (It is on this point where affinities between Aksornsawang and co-producer and fellow filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong become most pronounced). In this way, too, the film closely expresses the twists and turns of not only memory but also imagination — and, even more, of their ceaseless overlapping into each other like waves and the role of audiovisual media in helping to shape these twists and turns.
extended fictional sequence of the private reencounter between Aoey and her
ex-lover (Bhumibhat Thavornsir) — also one of the Buddhist monks who helps to
perform the rites for her mother — the agitated manner in which it concludes,
and their individual solitary ambling into the night inevitably refers back to
the subjects of family, parting, and death.
In many ways,
the second montage of stills close to the end of the film repeats all that
comes before it, structurally, thematically, and visually. In keeping with the
home movie quality of the documentary sequences, this montage presents images
of all that makes one think, or better yet define, home and family, and — just
as importantly — how one chooses to remember them, be they present or absent.
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.