Short Film Review: People on Sunday (2019)

Stylistic human poses in this short are very much in the style of "art films".

Work and leisure have always shared an entangled relationship. Before the 20th century, the majority of working space and living space co-inhabit the same “house”, demarcated only by the spatial logic of interiority and (semi-)exteriority, or separated temporally within the same physical confinement. At the advent of the industrial revolution, work and leisure parted ways. Production moved from the private sphere to the public to accommodate capitalist requirements. Just as typologies of living space and workplace get increasingly differentiated, the perception of work and leisure becomes bifurcated. In effect, work was brought out of home, physically and metaphorically. But the Covid-19 pandemic puts it right back. 

For Thai filmmaker Tulapop Saenjaroen, the said assertion would perhaps be regarded as naive. As his 2019 short People on Sunday shall demonstrate, work and leisure didn’t wait until a global health crisis to find their ways back to each other. Rather, they have long creeped into each other’s territories by the very condition of contemporary life.

People on Sunday opens with an undulating colour field in a perpetual state of gradual transitioning of its hue, reminiscing James Turrell’s ganzfeld: vibrant and saturated enough to suggest something completely artificial and removed from reality, yet still having that affective power to instil in viewers some tranquility. This is accompanied by a piece of music that starts out soft but quickly modulates to an upbeat register, priming an enthusiastic voiceover that dispenses self-help advice: “Listening to this voice recording regularly will change your subconscious mind. You will be more confident, more imaginative. Your memory will improve. you will feel more positive towards yourself and others.”

From the perspective of the behind-the-scene cameraman

What follows are three sections, each of which is narrated by a distinct character: a girl going for an acting gig to better spend her otherwise idle free time, a cameraman who shoots behind-the-scene footage of the same production, and an editor tasked to edit it. The first part is re-enactment of some scenes from the 1929 German film of the same name Menschen am Sonntag, known for its cast of non-professional actors who could only act on Sundays. But Saenjaroen wasn’t the one making the reproduction; rather, the filmmakers in the world that he creates are the ones doing so. Numerous cues seem to imply that Saenjaroen really wants to ensure that we as viewers are aware of this: explicit mentioning of Menschen am Sonntag as the inspiration for the director character, a printed shot list with stills lifted off from the original movie, and their striking compositional similarities of the re-enactment.

Subsequent sections take the re-appropriation as starting materials to drive the story. Our focus shifts to the Behind-The-Scenes (BTS) cameraman, whom we perceive only through his raspy, probably digitally manipulated voice. He shares with us the irony he sees in camerawork: videography means recording people on screen, yet he hates being filmed owing to the alleged inauthenticity of the camera-facing persona. The film concludes with the editor of the BTS footage delivering a tutorial on producing the ganzfield that we see in the beginning, possibly suggesting a side hustle that supplements her primary editing job.

Although the short is explicit about its referentiality to the German original, it’s not enough just knowing about where the inspiration comes from. A comparison in terms of stylistic qualities is paramount to understanding the implications of Saenjaroen’s reinterpretation. Naturalistic acting by non-professionals in Menschen am Sonntag is common to our general conception of films - construction of a world that appears credible to viewers and thus capable of immersing them in its internal logic. Meanwhile, the re-enactment in Saenjaroen’s version is uncomfortably mechanical. The performers recite with gusto imperatives about self-improvement, basing them off from a list provided by the director in the film. When asked to relax, they, or at least the narrating character, are simply puzzled about what should be done, as if the capacity to genuinely enjoy life as it is is somehow lost. Indeed, all three narrators share a compulsion to use their free time for activities that might benefit them in their line of work in one way or another, be it forming connections or finding inspirations for their creativity. For them, work has encroached upon the domain of leisure. 

 Amateur actors in the film recite lines from a list of self-improvement imperatives provided by the director

Non-actors in Menschen am Sonntag fool around with their picnic food

So what has changed since the release of Menschen am Sonntag? Labour has always been a currency of material or service exchange, directly or indirectly. But now capitalist rationality penetrates every corner of society. Ingrained in all of us are the logic of opportunity cost that equates doing nothing productive to a loss of capital, the hustler mentality that derives feel-goodness from never-ending work. Self-worth becomes quantifiable in terms of labour. That is, to work is to become a better version of oneself; nothing else seems as important anymore.

To put together a film slightly over 20 minutes long that could convey such naked, undeniable truths about the reality of our contemporary life is certainly not an easy feat. But I have my reservations about the effectiveness of this endeavour. Saenjaroen unquestionably signals to us about the German original that inspires his film, through both writings about and narrative lines inside the short. While I appreciate the gesture of not leaving viewers in total unknown, the provision of a very definitive context and background information creates a false sense of certainty about what should be known when reading his film. People who have not seen Menschen am Sonntag might thus not feel the need to go find and watch the original. They would then see Saenjaroen’s creation a deceptively empty exercise of rehashing the things that we all have already known and familiar with, thus failing to comprehend the drastic transformation in the pattern of work-life that his short seeks to highlight. Of course there’s nothing wrong with making use of textual referentiality and assuming a certain film literacy. After all, Saenjaroen’s works are never meant for everyone’s consumption. Still, I wonder if there’s a more elegant way to bring out the truthful implications that are already embedded within the short.

Another unease I have for this film is the breakdown of its fictive reality. On the one hand, I do enjoy the “art” poses bordering on abnormality that the actors have to be in for the re-appropriation. On the other, the overtly mechanical acting, while paramount to depicting how non-professionals work in their free time in a way that starkly contrasts with the naturalistic German original, vaguely hints at some degree of fictiveness. This is compounded with a repeated motif of exposing the fictional nature of the frames we see on screen. In one moment, we see a group of four people resting on the jungle floor, their skin illuminated by wavy light patterns, often thought of as reflection from a choppy water surface. The camera view of the next moment widens to reveal that the illumination is actually done with two assistants rocking a big reflective sheet. In another scene, we are blasted with a fast-cut montage of found  Internet footages, which are subsequently discovered to be video clips that the editor stumbles upon when going through the cameraman’s hard drive. At the end, it is revealed that the opening ganzfield is in fact a colour relaxation therapy video that the editor is making a tutorial for.

Ganzfeld on screen is the opening for the short.

At the end, the editor is seen giving a tutorial on making a Color Relaxation video.

We thus have good reasons to question the reliability of the film form. Or more precisely, it comes to our senses that what see is a meticulous orchestration of a filmmaker, nothing that we don’t already know. In other words, our suspension of disbelief for the film is disrupted. We become fully aware that what we see is a text packaged with signs, put together by a creator. But instead of blurring the lines between fiction and reality to convey the realness of what is depicted, the film, with a lowered extent of immersiveness, might feel like a contrived effort to speak wisdom using the toolkits of semiology and inter-textual analysis. This might compromise the potency of the film as it could be regarded as a far-fetched over-exaggeration of the reality simply for the sake of employing academic strategies to prove a point.

Despite all the potential pitfalls, I still think that Saenjaroen has done a brilliant job. Hardly any of us could negate the truthfulness about the condition of our contemporary life being over-obsessive about working. It could be a wakeup call to reflect upon our lifestyle, a realisation about our unconscious subjugation to capitalist ideas. Or simply a reminder that it’s time to take a real break, that you have worked enough. You are enough. 

Written by Dan Tran

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