By the Time It Gets Dark
The dark shadow of the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, where an estimated 100 students were mowed down by the Thai military, hangs over Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, the memory of the event drifting across time and consciousness. This relationship with the darker corners of Thailand’s past and present blurs through much of the narrative line, which is purposely manipulated and deconstructed throughout. Shot through glass windows and shrouded veils, characters unassumingly appear in different guises and scenes are repeated verbatim, except with completely different actors delivering the lines.
Opening with a re-enactment of the soldiers forcing the Thammasat students to lie face down on the floor, a photographer steps in to cajole the actors into portraying more force towards their victims. Soon we are latched onto a seemingly simple story from which the rest of the film pivots around, listening to Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a young director, interviewing a middle-aged, highly-respected former activist Taew (Rassami Paoluengtong), recalling her memories of the Thammasat tragedy, in order to form the basis of her biographic feature film. Flashbacks take us to Taew’s younger days in the University, although these are never identified as being viewed as either her own recollections, or Ann’s later onscreen interpretation of events.
Time and space barely seem to exist at all in Suwichakornpong’s world, leaving her audience to compose their own structure and imaginatively fill in the gaps. It is as transfixing as it is unconventional, forging together the national consciousness with the memories of individuals who have experienced it first hand, and those who are attempting to view the lessons of history. The serene and meditative quality of Suwichakornpong’s framing constantly blurs the line between what may be memory, dreams, reality or even hallucinations. One such moment finds Ann weeping in her sleep, before rising up out of bed in the middle of the night to sit silently with her future self and the younger version of Taew.
A further thread reveals itself in the final act, where Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) is seen working on a regional farm, harvesting tobacco leaves. In fact, it appears that he is an actor, as we later see him living a far more luxurious lifestyle posing for photos with eager fans. Yet this is still not where the truth lies. To get a clearer vantage point we need to take another step back, joining the editors in their suite piecing together Peter’s footage, turning what we’re seeing into a film of a film. Gathering together Ann's story, along with that of Peter's and the time spent drifting ghost like along the highway ala David Lynch, points towards Suwichakornpong referencing her own cinematic existence.
The intended fragmentation of the narrative serves to disorientate where your exact understanding may be at any one time, but Suwichakornpong’s places such confidence behind her fluid approach, you never become unanchored from its atmosphere. Its hypnotic qualities wash over you and the obvious comparison to make is with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, although Suwichakornpong has been moulding this formative approach since her 2009 debut Mundane History. The film ends with a powerful, digitally charged montage of colour that seems to signal the end of a journey, or maybe a rebirth, to follow the deconstruction that came before it.