Review: By the Time it Gets Dark // ดาวคะนอง (2016)

Anocha Suwichakornpong's second feature,‘By the Time it Gets Dark’ is a mystical mystery that is haunted by the 1977 massacre in Bangkok. To unjustifiably simplify a complex film, ‘By the Time it Gets Dark’ deals with a traumatic part of Thai history which unfortunately has been disregarded with apathy in its modern society.

This introspective and political film begins seemingly conventionally, about a young woman Ann, (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) attempting to make a film about the massacre, interviewing a surviving student protester Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) at a rural cottage, presumably in the outskirts of Bangkok. They go through the motions of an interview, digging deep into the past with flashbacks of the time when the students begin to question the authorities as well as having reenactments in the future. Thus far, the beginning is easy to follow.

Later on however, the narrative or plot, if that is the right term for this film, morphs regularly, turning and twisting. Ann’s relative failure in getting Taew to open up begins the second part of the narrative. Her mind begins to take over with dreams of a forest, a magical and strange encounter with herself and mushrooms. This leads us right out into George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon and a visceral macrophotography timelapse of fungi and it simply gets more and more surreal.  

The sudden use of different mediums is not the most jarring issue, however. It is the sudden abandonment of the main narrative, which may lose some. We take a sharp turn with Ann focusing more on her own supernatural abilities than on the work regarding the massacre.

We are left to wonder to our own imagination certain parts as we are carried away by Anocha’s ethereal and cosmic imagery. If you are able to carry on, the journey becomes wilder but if you are not, then the film will begin to fall apart for you, especially once the film recycles itself.

We are reintroduced to the opening scenes at the rural cottage though now the main characters have changed but yet repeat more or less the same lines. An echo of Apichatpong’s ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is present in this instance but quickly dissipates when it is clear the repetition is not meant in the same way.

In the midst of this, a few laughs seem to be readily available once we are repositioned into a tobacco factory and introduced to Peter, (Arak Amornsupasiri) an actor that partakes in an amusing music video sequence. Peter’s segment have little to do with the main narrative and is expectedly disconnected.

The only connecting through line offered by the film is through a magnetic young female character (Atchara Suwan) who changes jobs constantly and appears as a side character to many of the main narratives.  As a waitress, a cleaner and a monk, she is constantly apparent to the bigger stories and at the same time distant. This is a loose connection to the theme; a display of the apathy of young people towards historical and political events.

Regardless, the film remains engaging and beguilingly beautiful without any need for real answers. The surrealism comes to a climax at the end when Anocha transposes a montage of prayer halls to nightclubs to stunning digital effect and finally melting away into reality. The impossible idea of creating a historical film in the face of apathy ultimately consuming itself with a grand finality.

Ultimately, 'By the Time it Gets Dark' is a careful examination on time, memory, trauma and cinema. Constantly shape-shifting between fact and fiction, from rural to cities, dreams, reality and films. However, all these things have somehow been able to unite and coalesce  into a masterfully done reflection of a particular moment in history and its many rippling effects. 

Rifyal Giffari. Stills courtesy of LUXBOX

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