Anocha Suwichakornpong's latest film was shown at the London East Asia Film Festival
Things are never as they seem in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s “love letter to cinema.”
London East Asia Film Festival If anything holds By the Time It Gets Dark together, it’s a sense of tension that’s never resolved. It’s present in the political conflicts of Thailand that the film references, as well as in a number of storylines that disappear without distinctive conclusions. Although frustrating at times, these twists and turns make it difficult to look away.
“This film is my love letter to cinema,” Director Anocha Suwichakornpong previously said at a press conference for the film, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August. Most recently it screened at the Regent Street Cinema for the London East Asia Film Festival as one of the Stories of Women.
It’s Suwichakornpong’s second feature following Mundane History from her independent production house Electric Eel Films. There she’s the owner, as well as a director and scriptwriter. By the Time It Gets Dark gives an intriguing glimpse into all this as it delves into different aspects of cinema, as well as her native Thailand. The film seems to serve as its observant lens that kaleidoscopically obscures both the beautiful and critical.
Watching By the Time It Gets Dark is a bit like touring a carnival fun house. Things look familiar but there’s something invariably off. The frame of a wooden wall might be disrupted by sneaky ants snaking past, or a sun-filled window might be missing a pane of glass for example. A quiet scene of the countryside might lose its peace as cicadas’ hum intensifies.
As soon as you start to make sense of the shapes and sounds on screen, more overt tricks throw the viewer for a loop as well, say a transition in the form of a time lapse of growing mushrooms instead of a simple fade, or a scene at a disco disintegrating into neon pixels and being transformed into a wooded lake.
You know those mirrors that make you look tall and skinny or short and fat, distorting how you see reality? There’s a bit of that too in a few disjointed, yet related scenes.
In one instance, there are two stories almost repeated word for word. However, they have slightly different settings and are shown at different points in the film. The first plays out further than the second.
In the original, we hear snippets of a conversation between a filmmaker and a woman who was an activist as a university student during the 1976 Thammasat Massacre.
“You’re still here,” the young filmmaker says. “It’s like you’re living history. Your life is meaningful.”
“You got one thing wrong,” the woman replies. “I’m not living history. I’m just a survivor.”
The second version ends with the woman taking a nap before her interview with the filmmaker.
In another instance, we get to know an actor. We see him lounging in bed with his girlfriend at home and eating dinner with friends at a restaurant. In another scene he films a music video in a studio. Later, we hear of him again, but only in passing. His crew is editing his film when they receive news of his death.
Both these circumstances beg the audience to consider how they otherwise might have turned out had things gone a different direction. Recurring shots of different roads — dirt paths and winding highways — also evoke this.
From subtle details that are surprisingly disconcerting to scenes reworked just to the point of being beyond recognition, By the Time It Gets Dark is jarring from start to finish. Dancing around specifics, it keeps the viewer guessing about what could have been, and what could be.