Nakorn-Sawan (Thailand/South Korea/Germany, 2018) [Aperture 2019]

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 with it.

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 Thungsuwan) and, 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.

Even the 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.

Nakorn-Sawan is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival & UK Tour 2019.