Like her fellow Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Anocha Suwichakornpong is never going to be accused of sacrificing everything, or really anything, to plot. Her newest film, “By the Time It Gets Dark,” jumps at first into an examination of Thailand’s repressed history of political violence and dictatorial control. But that initial pencil sketch of a thesis is soon shuffled away in favor of several other less-interesting story threads which add up to much less than the sum of their parts.
Suwichakornpong opens on wind-rustled and bird-chirped scenes, with long tracking shots through grass and an empty house that enrapture as easily as anything in the catalog of Terrence Malick or Tran Anh Hung. These bucolic moments are then smacked right up against more jangled ones: dozens of bruised people face down in a warehouse with their hands tied behind their backs while rifle-toting soldiers circle. But these scenes have a metatheatrical twist: everyone appears just a bit too casual, and we hear shouted instructions for the guards to “be more brutal!”
Before we can determine if this is a film set or recreation, the film is off to a quiet house on a mountain side, where a filmmaker is interviewing a famous writer about her role in student protests from many years before. The director and writer are standoffish but pleasant with each other, acting with a kind of serene formality that prevails through most of the increasingly soporific film. “You’re living history,” insists the director, while the writer shoots back, with the humility of those who have seen true tragedy, “I’m just a survivor.”
Suwichakornpong toggles between their scenes together and what are either flashbacks about the protests or flash-forwards to the fruit of their labors: recreated scenes depicting student agitators earnestly denouncing their country’s military rulers and tagging “Get Out Dictator!” on the school walls. While not precisely electric, the two arcs’ interrelation creates a modest kind of tension and mystery, spiking when the director goes for a walk in the woods only to find herself walking a parallel path to a doppelgänger.
After that point, “By the Time It Gets Dark” starts spinning off into new tangents that are simultaneously more surreal and mundane. An actor who may or may not be connected with the film hangs around Bangkok. The scene from Georges Méliès’s “A Trip To The Moon” with the massive lunar mushrooms pops up for apparently no other reason than to rhyme with other scenes involving fungi. A young woman works various service jobs. Workers in a tobacco factory cure and pack the leaves. Some scenes are redone in a slightly different fashion, only with more professional performers. Everything circles back in on itself while simultaneously shooting off into the unknown.
Could this all be roundabout satire? The film makes a point of prominently invoking the events of October 1976, when the military junta’s militias and police massacred and lynched student protestors. A lot has been made elsewhere about the country’s relative amnesia about its history of repression, and Suwichakornpong herself has talked about the parallels between that period and the latest military coup in 2014. One could certainly find examples throughout the film of forgetfulness, dreaming, and escaping from the cruelty of history in mundanity. Or that could all just be an attempt to find a more soulful aspect to the everyday. Intentions are difficult to divine.
If this is satire, “By the Time It Gets Dark” is a mostly toothless one. Suwichakornpong has an accomplished eye for bright, aching imagery and haunting cross-cutting. Her jewel-like cinematography, though, comes close to masking what is either a true lack of organizing principle or an inability to tease a theme or story out of this ultimately motionless exercise.
It’s possible that Suwichakornpong was simply self-censoring here, like Weerasethakul suggested he might have to do in order to get films like “Cemetery Of Splendor” shown in Thailand. This is a shame if true, because there is artistry buried deep inside the thin skein of film-within-film conceits. [C+]