Shot in trains traveling on every operating railway route in Thailand, Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s documentary, Railway Sleepers, turns an inquisitive eye to the nation’s population, often proffering revealing observations on the country, its diversity, and its recent political turmoil through the camera’s patient, observational gaze. An assistant director for three of film festival darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s features, Chidgasornpongse impresses in his own directorial debut with his keen ability to capture the character of the trains’ passengers as he accompanies them around the country. Only offering brief sketches of the travellers (until the inclusion of a lengthy conversation on the history and future of the country’s trains during the film’s final fifteen minutes), the film manages to sustain our interest by piquing our curiosity, permitting us to decipher its subjects and piece them together.
While watching the film, the fact that it was captured from the confines of railway cars over eight years, from 2008 to 2016, remains unperceivable. Indeed, if the frequent shift from day to night was ignored, a viewer could mistakenly believe that Railway Sleepers presents an uninterrupted one-hour-forty-five-minute train journey with regular transitions between cars. There are no abrupt disjunctions between locations, such as subtitles identifying one route from another, and although we do see the gorgeous countryside from the train windows, it is indistinctive (at least to a foreigner’s eye), leaving us ignorant of the train’s itinerary. The sense of connectedness is augmented by a sound bridge of train noises that runs uninterrupted throughout the film further linking the scenes together. Chidgasornpongse presents a collage of Thailand and its people, with subtle distinctions through snatches of conversations, the travellers’ dress and bearing, and their interactions with other passengers and the train, that reveal their class status, education, and religious beliefs.
Perhaps those who speak Thai will be able to discern variances in accents, but for everyone else only by watching the passengers closely can we make educated guesses that segment the scenes into different areas of the country. Passengers include a group of children traveling with their English school, foreign tourists, multi-generational families, and workers. In one area of the country, presumably the southernmost tip of Thailand where a heavy Muslim population resides, an increasing number of women wearing hijabs and men wearing taqiyahs board the train. In this section of the film, armed forces conspicuously patrol the cars and stand in doorways, rupturing the journey’s experience with memories of the military coups and suppression, government corruption, and Muslim separatist struggles that have recurrently resurfaced in the country for decades.
The trains themselves, and how they have integrated into Thai culture, are reflected upon as a symbol of Thailand’s modernity. The film opens with a crawl of King Chulalongkorn’s speech in 1893 inaugurating the nation’s first train line with high hopes of what it would mean for the country. As discussed in the closing conversation between a British line surveyor and another passenger, trains have unified the country by providing the means for its citizens to make journeys in hours that would previously take days traversing the lengthy Thai coastline, quite literally forming a more connected nation out of a multi-ethnic people with their own subcultures and customs. But this progress has also divided them into classes as is easily observable in the varied cultures that divide the first-class cars from the jam-packed coach seats. Through this oft-used metaphor, the film reflects on Thailand as a country in flux. However, Railway Sleepers continually reminds us that in this in-between state the country maintains its ties to its traditions while it moves forward along with globalisation. On seemingly all of the train’s routes, peddlers travel between all the cars, selling everything from snacks and water to astrology guidebooks that “are about eighty percent accurate.” The folk and Buddhist traditions that play a vital role in so many Thais’ lives appear frequently through palm reading, groups of robed monks, and the recitation of prayers. Chidgasornpongse skilfully diffuses these moments throughout the film, quietly asserting that these are central aspects of Thai culture that will accompany the nation to whatever destinations lie ahead.