Doing justice to controversial historical tragedies on film is a tricky business—just ask Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong, or her analog, or her analog’s analog. Although billed as a meditation on the 1976 Thassanat University Massacre, her recursively self-referential film is more closely akin to the logical-universe-be-damned auteurism of Lynch’s Lost Highway or Zuławski at his most outré. Prepare for déjà vu all over again in Suwichakornpong’s By the Time it Gets Dark (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
Ann’s plan was to interview Taew, a highly-respected “public intellectual,” who survived the 1976 incident, in a comfortable vacation home in the provinces. However, it is not clear Ann has the proper depth and maturity for the project. At least she is self-aware of her shortcomings, which results in some rather expressionistic scenes of soul searching. Fortunately, the character based on her will fare better when she interviews the more fashionable Taew in an even nicer McMansion.
There is a fair amount of identity-shifting and sharing in Gets Dark, including Peter, a tobacco worker, who is actually a movie-star having a clandestine affair with his co-star, who will play an “Ann,” but really wants to direct herself. Whenever the various characters or cast-members of the films-within-films are out in public, they are invariable waited on or in some way serviced by the silent Nong. Indeed, she is the constant. No matter which side is currently in power, folks like Nong have to clean up their crap, regardless what sort of ideology the powers-that-be spout.
Gets Dark is impressively ambitious, but the execution is spotty. Instead of keeping careful tabs on each of the film’s sequential Russian dolls of narrative reality, Suwichakornpong essentially hands us mismatched halves, in the hopes that we get the idea of how everything ought to fit together in theory. Still, her commanding visual vocabulary makes quite an impression, particularly the filming of the 1976 atrocities (which we do not immediately recognize as an in-film sequence of movie-making).
Despite the film’s intellectual distance, it boasts some potent performances, including all of the Anns (Visra Vichit-Vadakan, Inthira Charoenpura, and Soraya Nakasuwan) and Taews (Rassami Paoluengtong, Penpak Sirikul, and sort of Waywiree Ittianunkul, as the student activist). Even though she is more or less playing a symbol, Atchara Suwan also has tremendous presence as Nong.
Frankly, there is so much Borgesian gamesmanship in Get Dark, we lose sight of the massacre. In fact, Ming Kai Leung’s warm, hazy cinematography will make viewers more inclined to visit Thailand, so they can sink into its tropical lushness. Ultimately, the film is too awkward and ungainly to hold together, but it is often an interesting misfire, which counts for something. For those who find Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul too mainstream commercial, By the Time it Gets Dark screens tomorrow (3/19) at the Walter Reade and Monday (3/20) at MoMA, as part of ND/NF 2017.