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East Meets West Meets Island Meets L.A. Meets Orange County

Ed Rampell: Thai writer/director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong) is an artsy rumination on post traumatic stress disorder, filmmaking, the role of writers, past and present day Thailand and Buddha knows what else.
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LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS

The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival focuses on features, shorts and documentaries from and about Asia and the Pacific Islands. The films screened during LAAPFF in L.A. from April 27-May 4 and in Orange County from May 5-11 are all shot on location in Asia and Oceania and/or depict characters of and/or were made by talents of Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry, such as Mele Murals, a documentary about Hawaiian street artists.

As such, LAAPFF provides cineastes with an invaluable window into the movies and societies of Asia and Polynesia, and of individuals from those ethnic groups living in continental North America. The L.A. venues where LAAPFF screenings and conferences took place highlight specialty cinema, such as the opening and closing night galas at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre and the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Strip, as well as the Downtown Independent, the arthouse where I viewed three films:

Thailand: By the Time It Gets Dark

Thai writer/director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong) is an artsy rumination on post traumatic stress disorder, filmmaking, the role of writers, past and present day Thailand and Buddha knows what else. In its intricate, obtuse structure it reminded me of those early French New Wave movies with nonlinear film forms about memory and more by Alain Resnais, such as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. And Suwichakornpong’s follow-up to Mundane History, which won a Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is every bit as perplexing, mystifying and indecipherable to most filmgoers as Resnais’ formalistic pictures and Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet’s complex Marienbad screenplay were to many 1950s/1960s viewers.

Moving back and forth in time and the minds of Dark’s characters, the feature appears to open with the Thammasat University massacre of 1976, when rightwing paramilitary and government forces butchered student protesters (the number of casualties is disputed but by the official count, at least 46 pupils were murdered for thought “crimes” including protesting the return to Thailand of a military strongman and mocking the crown prince). This despicable slaughter at Bangkok was to Thailand what, say, the Kent and Jackson State killings of student dissenters was to Americans.

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So far, so good for lovers of political cinema - I thought we were in for a Thai film along the lines of, say, Costa-Gavras’ 1982 Missing, about Generalissimo Pinochet’s bloody coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 (three years before the Thammasat University slayings). After the troubling curtain raiser, a middle aged female writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) - a former student activist who had witnessed the campus carnage in the 1970s - travels to the countryside in contemporary Thailand to meet with a much younger female filmmaker, Ann (not Anocha - played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan). She is - for some undisclosed reason - compelled to tell Taew’s story.

This has the makings of a first rate political thriller, but for whatever reasons, alas, that’s not the movie Suwichakornpong goes on to tell. In a fragmented way Dark flashes back and forth, from past to present, character to character, and along the way, it probably leaves most viewers behind in the, well, dark. It turns out that - just as the opening scene of shirtless students (the females bra straps visible) lying face down on the floor of what seems to be a classroom, guarded by rifle-wielding soldiers and/or paramilitaries, is actually mise-en-scène for a movie being shot about the student massacre - little, if anything, is as it appears to be in this complex film.

Further complicating matters is actress Atchara Suwan, a plain-looking young woman who appears in several different roles, from a waitress near the villa where the posher Taew and Ann are staying to one of Thailand’s many monks performing errands at a monastery. In the guise of the aforesaid server, the apparently simpler Suwan gives Taew and Ann advice that, perhaps, Suwichakornpong might have listened to: Since the story being told in Ann’s proposed film is actually Taew’s tale, she - and not the young cineaste - should write the script.

But Suwichakornpong doesn’t heed these sage if simple words of wisdom and her 105 minute film careens all over the place, from character to character (other prettier actress also portrays Ann and Taew in what may be their “glammed-up” silver spring versions), like an experimental movie. There is, for some inexplicable reason, even a clip from Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic sci fi short A Trip to the Moon and Dark’s grand finale is also somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic pyrotechnics towards the end of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What is Suwichakornpong getting at in her stylish hodgepodge of imagery? How difficult it is to render past traumas as art in the present day? Or perhaps the political themes inherent in her material remain murky and are never allowed to reach fruition because this might displease her funders that include Qatar, which like Thailand is a hereditary monarchy? (Likewise co-funded by the Doha Film Institute, the Bolivian miners film Dark Skull also has a similar format in that while it revealed the harsh conditions miners work under it never actually depicts them going on strike per se.)

Having said all this, being an adventurous filmgoer, I’m glad I saw the West Coast Premiere of By the Time It Gets Dark - even if it was largely incomprehensible to me and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of its tales. Perhaps this is because of cultural differences (although, for what it’s worth, I’ve traveled to Thailand three times) or I just might not be smart enough to figure out what this eclectic picture means. Be that as it may, Suwichakornpong is an emerging talent cinephiles should keep their eyes on - although she might want to expand her expressive prowess to be able to better communicate her meanings to broader audiences, including this dolt and dullard, who didn’t get Dark, yet liked it.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length movie Strike on Friday, 7:30 p.m., May 26, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.