If you ever book a ticket on Thailand’s rail system, make sure you have forty or fifty baht in your pocket. That is because there are no shortage of hawkers selling tasty sounding street food like fried peanuts, fermented pork, and pork dumplings for a mere ten baht. Of course, most western tourists are up in first class, where you can enjoy some fine dining during overnights. Sompot “Boat” Chidgasornpongse documents the breadth and diversity of Thai society, as reflected by the passengers of each and every line of the Thai railroad in Railway Sleepers (trailer here) which screens during this year’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.
There is something soothing (or lulling) about rail travel, as the frequently dozing passengers remind us. It is not called Railway Sleepers for nothing. Chidgasornpongse is mostly content to observe, offering commentary sparingly and obliquely, as when the aisles are suddenly patrolled by heavily armed soldiers rather than fried peanut vendors.
We clearly see passengers who are rich and poor, old and young, and Buddhist and Muslim. Unfortunately, we just see them and rarely listen to them converse, which is a shame, because they probably have a lot of interesting things to say. In fact, that is why J.P. Sniadeki’s thematically similar The Iron Ministry was such a rich and engaging viewing experience. It essentially immersed viewers in the man-on-the-street opinions and concerns of a wide cross-section of Chinese society. In contrast, Sleepers is really about how the passengers relate to the train itself.
Still, Chidgasornpongse has a keen eye for imagery and the involvement of his former mentor-boss Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul is sure to spur interest on the festival circuit. It does stimulate train-based nostalgia. If you went to school in the Midwest, you maybe miss the sound of distant train whistles when you’re turning in around 3:00 in the morning. Yet, it just doesn’t stimulate on a social-intellectual level the way Iron Ministry does (but, it should be granted that is a really good documentary).
Those who are admirers of the Sensory Ethnology Lab’s documentaries (which indeed includes Ministry, as well as Sniadecki’s Yumen and People’s Park) should definitely appreciate Railway Sleepers, but even Joe Weerasethakul fans might catch their heads nodding. Best saved for an elite slow cinema-vérité audience, Railway Sleepers screens this Sunday (1/14), as part of First Look 2018, at MoMI.