Short Film Review: Graceland (2006)


The night is young and the King of Rock and Roll is riding shotgun in your BMW. You finish your cigarette and blaze down, down the highway, into the woods. Where to? The King is asking, but you have no answer but down, down South. Down the highway, into the woods. The King is getting a little apprehensive, and suddenly Mr. P has all but melted away into Jon, hunk with a heart, farm boy with electric hips, young man stranded with a car that has no driver—what now but to enter the woods, lovely, dark, and deep…

In Graceland, Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong’s thesis film from Columbia University’s film programme, the story is simple yet oblique: a young Elvis impersonator, Jon (Sarawut Martthong in his matinee best), has hitched a ride to nowhere with a nameless woman (Jelralin Chanchoenglop), cool and inscrutable like the night-bound city. It is their first meeting, and it is as terse as any: tussle over the car radio, throwaway aside on whistling, and the awkward solidarity between smokers. He wants to know where they are going, she knows (or maybe not) but does not say.

They stop in a forested patch, and she vanishes into the trees. Jon should know better, and yet off he ventures, chasing her down into the shallows of a river, where he brings her to shore and makes a fire. Intimacy unfolds in the vein of any situation that boasts hot wet men and pretty girls in emotional distress, but by daybreak Jon is alone—and stranded. Hitching a ride on the back of a passing truck with a mother and her young daughter, Jon’s jungle fever fades with the morning-blue and he is back in his shotgun shack in the poor part of town again, the night is over, and with it a dream; any dream. 

Eschewing narrativity for affect, Suwichakornpong’s direction lingers like a diaphanous membrane through which space, object, and people acquire a luminous sheen of the fantastic. And as with all things fantastic, it manifests in instances before vanishing again—only here, it is much less staccato pacing than simply lapsing into a base state of potential, like the ebbs and flows of sleep as dreams begin and end. The characters are less people and more conduits through which sentiments could emanate. From the bemused glint in the woman’s eyes as she takes a lazy drag of cigarette to the skittish determination in Jon’s arms as he hauls her from death by water, Suwichakornpong excels at erasing the clear marks of individuation from the characters and lets them blur into archetypes that draws out desire in a visceral way (One could imagine, could want, sliding into the casual tenderness of how Jon’s housemate embraces him near the end of the film). It is also interesting to note too, the Suwichakornpong’s rhythmic sensibility which melds interestingly between cinematic and musical registers as each scene unfolds, the way errand lights lit up each character’s face occurring like a sort of refrain.

Made with a steady hand and an eye for unembellished elegance, Graceland, which also happens to be the first Thai short film to be in the official selection of Cannes Film Festival’s Cin√©fondation section when it premiered in 2006, marks the beginning of a self-assured practice that utilises the moving image as a point of departure into meditations of time, space, and the politics contained within. As far as creation myths go, Graceland rings with the easy charm of a first hit single, bubbling on the charts, the wordless tune a soundtrack for the quiet night.

- Alfonse Chiu

Graceland is currently available for view on e-flux Video & Film for free internationally till 31 July 2021 as part of the July staff pick.

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