To call what happens in By the Time It Gets Dark a “plot” is to do it a disservice of sorts, such is the beguilingly self-reflexive nature of Anocha Suwichakornpong’s becalmed, trippy, historically conscious fungus of a film. That the film strays from its central conceit—the Thammasat University massacre of 1976, here “re-enacted” by a well-intentioned director trying to make a film about one of its leading activists—is a gambit that Suwichakornpong handles with an elastic but formally cohesive schema of detours, longeurs, and non-sequiturs.
Even the pixel will become, someday, pastoral.
It’s a film that paints a flawed, enduring image of modernity, of Thailand as a country in a lengthy process of negotiation with its past, and of its increasingly globalised place in the world. The various attempts at connection, tethers of intimacy, and yearning for meaning create a potent image of broader human experience.
Mundane History was by any measure a self-assured and decidedly unique debut, however the conceptual steps forward in vision, scope, pacing, and coherence marked in By the Time it Gets Dark are phenomenal.
Occasionally dizzying, By the Time it Gets Dark is never didactic and through her bold approach to the medium Anocha Suwichakornpong offers audiences a thrilling glimpse of the possibilities of cinema.
From this premise, By the Time it Gets Dark branches off in many directions, its elliptical journey employing a variety of filmmaking styles to create a provocative treatise on memory, politics and cinema.
To watch Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is to journey through a world where the boundaries of time and space do not exist. Suwichakornpong’s style—established by her short Graceland (2007) and her debut feature Mundane History (2009), which premiered at Rotterdam—embodies this vision by collaging different mediums and leaving narrative gaps in her stories to the imagination. But this does not mean that she is only concerned with the metaphysical. Rather, Suwichakornpong’s films elevate the ethereality of the physical, human world, as her cosmic imagery intertwines with the relationships between strangers, friends, lovers, families, citizens, and governments.
The only tangible link between these glittering narrative shards is the figure of the waitress, who pops up toiling away in the background of almost every new setting, an ordinary figure entrusted with gluing together an extraordinary film.
In a country where massacres don’t enter the history books and past and present remain locked in a stagnant embrace, perhaps a filmmaker’s only possible response is to calmly sift through all the many ways of depicting the status quo before realizing that none of them are truly adequate. For all cinema’s beautiful manifestations, it can never quite capture history’s unruly backward flow.
This is a cinema that is far from the idea of the documentary (and from the misunderstanding of the objective documentarist); a cinema that exalts its proper essence: imagination.
In a way, the stories evaporate and we find ourselves constantly going in and out of them, in and out the present narration, in and out the different films. Thus, film and time share this incompleteness as they are made from the same suggestive material; for both, it is a question of projection.
At its beating heart is Thailand's political history, especially the Oct 6, 1976, massacre of students at Thammasat University; Anocha's attempt to revisit this dark chapter of national history -- one threatened as much to be repeated as it is to be forgotten, which is even worse -- is couched in a meta-narrative about a documentary film-maker and her subject, a student activist who's now a middle-aged woman.
From there, film within a film within a film becomes a life within a life. By The Time It Gets Dark is not an easy film to wrap your head around, but the feeling of loss, doubt and suffocated hope is right there.
Paris-based sales company Luxbox has acquired world sales rights to Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark), the second feature by Thai director-writer-producer Anocha Suwichakornpong, who impressed with her 2009 debut Mundane History.
Mixing “reality and dreams” and “different layers of time and space,” Suwichakornpong questions the possibility of “making nowadays a historical film about an untold chapter in the history of her country,” Moretti and Zardi said in a statement, adding they were “impressed by the poetry of her ode to cinema.”