If there is one thing upsetting about Anocha Suwichakornpong’s second film By the Time it Gets Dark (2016), it is its refusal to directly engage with historical trauma. This lack of directness visually translates into a presumption that, by commencing a disjunctive synthesis of two narratives, one can truly subvert the historical weight that the film builds on. The stubborn refusal of Suwichakornpong to confront trauma and history is a clear visual symptom of contemporary Thailand’s historical revisionism.
If we follow this line of thought, we could identify what constitute this historical revisionism in the film: a visual collapse of the grand historical narrative, the obfuscation of historical truth by contemporary capitalism and consumer culture, and the depoliticization brought by the affective dissonance. Is Suwichakornpong orchestrating Lyotardian postmodern apocalypse, or a Fukuyama end of history under the tense political climate of martial law in Thailand?
Suwichakornpong’s evasion of history is an act of reactionary politics. Let me begin this polemic announcing that in the arena of politics and art, form is a material locution of thought. The form of the art establishes the link between the artwork and the world. This relation emerges from a notion that form i.e. the structure, the medium, the organization of elements in the artwork is inseparable to materiality of art. The dialectical opposite of form is the Idea. The opposition and eventual synthesis of form and idea constitutes the politics of art.
In a historical film, its politics arises from the three colliding formal-political aspects: the politics of representation and the politics of form interfacing with the politics of time. The challenge for the filmmaker is to reconcile these three in order to constitute a new politics of the image that attempt to remake the global superstructure of the contemporary vision.
By the Time it Gets Dark is, no doubt, a product of a new politics of the image. It uses an oblique narrative form to corrupt the process of historical inquiry, quite homologous to what Lyotard described as the postmodern condition. In By the Time it Gets Dark, Suwichakornpong crystallizes a cinematic expression of anti-historicity of postmodernism, which for Lyotard constitutes ‘the decline of the unifying and legitimating power of the grand narratives of speculation and emancipation [brought by] both capitalist renewal and prosperity and the disorienting upsurge of technology [that caused] an impact on the status of knowledge.’ (Lyotard, p. 38) In order to orchestrate this loss of grip of historical trauma, Suwichakornpong commences from the point of origin with the most direct image of history: the image of the massacre in Thammasat University.
In the opening scene, we see students of Thammasat University lying face down on the ground in what looks like a dramatization of the massacre that happened in 1976. Moving between the blinding lights, a troop of uniformed military personnel crosses the students’ bodies on the floor. A woman holding a megaphone commands the military personnel to kick the students as they please and point guns at them. A surprising element enters the scene – a photographer with a camera shooting his subjects. At this point, we see Suwichakornpong’s struggle to provide a visual relation between historical actuality and the medium of cinema, one of her major thematic-formal devices used in the film. A montage of black and white images follows, or what can be describe as a parade of a supposed historical actuality. Suwichakornpong seems to ask a question: can this recreated photograph constitute a new historical reality? Is cinema capable of sustaining in depicting the truth of history?
It seems as though Suwichakornpong’s hesitation can be derived from the epistemological challenge of cinema in depicting historicity. In a series of sequence, which constitute the most lucid scenes in the film, we see a woman filmmaker Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) attempting to dramatize the difficulty of dealing with historical trauma head-on. She invites a survivor of the massacre for an interview set in a far-flung place somewhere in rural Thailand to execute preparatory research for a film script. In her conversations with the female survivor, we are invited as viewers to witness her attempt to access the emancipatory origin of the student’s struggle. In between their conversations, the film dramatizes the scenes that led to the student’s unrest. One can see clearly Suwichakornpong’s attempt to interrogate and at the same time to integrate history into the process of filmmaking.
The filmmaker Ann constitutes the historical distance of the youth to the historical trauma. Overwhelmed by the impossibility of bridging her own personal narrative to the narrative of the nation, she collapses in a fit: dramatizing a tale of defeat of the incapacity of young generations to confront the violence of Thailand’s history. The narrative then shifts into modern Thailand, which highlights the life of a famous actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri). In between the two narratives, Suwichakornpong smuggles a documentary-like depiction of tobacco industry in Northern Thailand.
By this time, Suwichakornporn creates the greatest distance from history in an attempt to perhaps actuate the breakdown of the grant narrative of emancipation in contemporary Thailand. The actor Peter, enmeshed in the entertainment and consumer culture of Thailand, is the anti-thesis of Ann, depicting a complete detachment from the material history of Thailand. Distracted by his fame, his lovers, and his priorities, he seems to find himself lost in Thailand’s urban jungle much like the jungle where Ann, the filmmaker, found herself lost.
What ties together the two disjointed narratives is the presence of another being: a singular anonymous woman employed in several jobs in the course of the narrative. This is perhaps Suwichakornporn’s way of dramatizing the spectre of Thailand’s contemporary workforce in the postmodern unfolding of neoliberalism in Thailand. We see her in the first narrative as a counter-girl in a restaurant where Ann and the massacre survivor Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) had breakfast. She then appeared as a hotel housekeeper in the second narrative, and a waiter in a floating restaurant at the end of the film. She has minimal contribution to the two major narratives other than as support to the main characters. She seems to constitute the silent majority of Thailand’s populace, the ordinary man and woman who contribute in the Thailand’s political economy and who are also participant in the shifting historical process.
Suwichakornporn, in the final sequences, showed us three dissolutions of the grand narrative of the old Thailand. First is the total assimilation of Thailand into twenty-first century capitalism as showed by the transitory breakdown of the cinematic image into the digital image. The second is reversion of workforce into religion as depicted by the woman worker’s religious conversion into becoming a Buddhist nun, signalling the erosion of collective agency in Thailand’s capitalist industries. And the last image is from the past, the student activist, looking far away, as if looking into the future. Behind her, a forest moved by the wind in a natural slumbering rhythm. In silence, she peers into the void as if peeking through time, speculating what might be Thailand forty to fifty years into the future. This is the last image of the past – only a fragment, alone, and seemingly at odds with the present.
What Suwichakornporn actuates in the last sequence is a foreboding. Her refusal to engage with historical trauma is an apprehension to engage with the political stakes accompanying the image of historical truth. Suwichakornporn refuses to peer into the void of history, by changing the flow of narrative time. Perhaps she is being true to herself, as a filmmaker haunted by her lack of commitment to her subject. She dally along surfaces, counter-paths, further and further away from where she started, into Thailand’s contemporary culture, a culture that have forgotten about the wound of time. Suwichakornporn has dramatized a tale of defeat, a tale of the tragedy of a nation gripped by fascistic state apparatus, with a bureaucratic capitalism that fully orchestrates the transition of Thailand into a historical revisionist and reactionary nation. It is time to put a break to these ice cold postmodern longueurs and non sequiturs, and reintegrate back the proletarian project of progressive aesthetics and collective action.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
By the Time it Gets Dark is available on DVD as part of The KimStim Collection from Icarus Films.