Review: Nakorn-Sawan (2018)

"Is sadness and sorrow the same thing?"

At the heart of Nakorn-Sawan, a master's thesis film by Puangsoi "Rose" Aksornsawang, lies this question. No doubt the film is drawn from deeply personal wells of grief, capturing the filmmaker’s bittersweet negotiation of her mother’s passing. Nakorn-Sawan’s overall arc is braided together by a “real” narrative and a fictional one. The former is a scrapbook-salad of handheld video footage and intimate photographs; the latter, however, is a thoughtful arrangement of stylised scenes coloured over with the hues of wistful retrospection.

Because both timelines are at once parallel and yet an endlessly echoed specter of each other, it is easy to classify Nakorn-Sawan as a docudrama that straddles (or smudges) obvious binaries. The documentary elements of it are clear as day. Her family members are forthcoming with their thoughts and stories, though they seem ambushed by the camera’s awkward angles – you get a sense in which you have quietly snuck past the threshold into the secret inner chambers of Rose’s memory. Thus, when the more dramatic scenes kick in – you know, the scenes that have been carefully scripted, composed, filmed and cut – the fictionalised nature of these re-imaginings is starkly palpable. The gestus of each narrative is that it is always vaguely pantomiming the presence of the other, even as it asserts itself, making Nakorn-Sawan a meditation on the gaps between pain and memory.

What is less revealing about the film, though, is its nature of encompassing both itself as well as the process of its becoming. Much like the boat that brings Aoey (Prapamonton Eiamchan) and her family on her mother’s final send-off, Nakorn-Sawan ferries the audience along a story and disembarks us alternately between the retelling and the reimagining. In trying to piece memory together – remembering, reenacting, refining, reversing and then redoing – the film captures the transformation of Rose’s psyche as she wades through sorrow. In other words, Nakorn-Sawan is as much the endpoint of Rose’s grieving process as it is the journey itself.

Watching the film gives one a sense that even the film is unsure about what to do with so much grief. Is sadness fuel for a creative engine, helping spur one into making art as a coping mechanism? Does sadness transform into catharsis once it is repackaged for the big screen, or does it remain a steady, pulsating undercurrent? In the question, posed by Aoey as she tries to grapple with her loss, "sadness" and "sorrow" are but shorthand for the impermanence of her grief. Still raw, still fresh, the film seems to know that only time will tell.

"Sadness is sadness," is all she can say.

SINdie spoke to Rose to delve deeper into her thoughts on the making of Nakorn-Sawan.

SINdie: Which films or filmmakers did you draw inspiration from when conceptualising Nakorn-Sawan?

Rose: Chantal Akerman is one of my most recent inspirations. Any news from home reminds me of when I was making this film. Identity and the relationship between daughter and mother move me a lot, and it has become the area which I am interested to explore more and try to understand by making more films.

What led you to settle on the docudrama format of presenting your story?

I decide to make it hybrid since my initial idea was to make a film. I wanted to conceptualise a personal story split into two parts. The first part was my personal self presenting a documentary. In the other part I wanted to put some a distance between me and the story, or at least to see how far I could tell a personal story if spun into a fictional narrative. After re-watching the footage, I reconstructed my memory by creating a fictional part to experiment with the documentary part. I’d already mixed fiction and non-fiction in the script.

What was the process of writing this film like?

It's more about looking back at what materials I'd collected while I was living far away from home. I experimented with the process through footage, notes, photos that my mom had sent over chat applications and I tried to write from those. For the fictional part, I developed it further from a short story that I had written so it's more like a collaboration of ideas and memory fragments. I randomly put both the fictional and documentary parts together to see how they interacted, but first I communicated these through writing.

How much of the "fictional" narrative was drawn from real-life, and how much entirely made up?

I can't really evaluate how much was fictional. I wanted to play with how truthful you can perceive a story to be. Most stories, personally speaking, are borrowed from your experiences together with memory, tales, expectations or even things that never happen. Like, you try to merge everything to 'tell' a 'story'. So from my perspective, my story is all made up but it collects things from real-life, adds, reduces and stylizes.

What aspects of yourself do you see reflected in Aoey?

Aoey is a fictional character that helps myself to narrate those feelings of mine that I can't say or I want to say.

In another article, I read that Nakorn-Sawan translates to "Paradise City". What, therefore, does a paradise city mean to you?

Sawan could be translated to Heaven. Nakorn means city. I like the hyphen that I put in the middle of city and heaven. For me, it's like life after death. It's somewhere in between. It could be interpreted as a level of loss for me, like passing through this city from loss to another level of life. You have lost something or someone but life goes on in the end. I'm just passing through this city, this area. But I don't say that the next city would be better or worse. It's like you just have to pass through it anyway.

How has the making of this film helped you in the process of grieving your mother’s passing?

Personally, it wasn't a process of me dealing with death. I mean it could have happened subconsciously, but for me it was a process of making a film with the intention to tell a story of loss, love and death. It's more like after making this film, it has become another aspect of my life now.

Written by Eisabess Chee

Still travelling on the film festival circuit, 'Nakorn-Sawan' was screened as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts Singular Screens programme on 20 May, at the Asian Film Archive's Oldham Theatre Screening Room.
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