Sparsely overgrown earth walls pass by the window. The rattling of the train gives way to other sounds – stones being hewn and gravel being scraped. We see a young woman in the forest. Her breathing and posture betray stress. Exhausted, she walks to a lake, drops to her knees and drinks. At another location we see three young men and a woman. The museum they want to visit is closed. Because the weather is nice, they decide to walk around the museum through the forest. They run across a disused railway line. One of the young men jokes: „Maybe someone will come at night and finish building the line …” In JAI JUMLONG (COME HERE), the latest film by Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong, these different levels only gradually begin to cohere.
The three young men are part of a theatre group and the young woman has joined them on a trip to the area around the city of Kanchanaburi. The film repeatedly turns in giving each individual character space. The scenic landscape of the area has a special history: the track at Hellfire Pass, which the group walks through at the beginning of the film, was part of the railway line between Thailand and what is today Myanmar. The line was built starting in 1942 by prisoners of war under the Japanese as well as workers from the region. In the process, over 100,000 died of exhaustion, maltreatment and disease.
"In contemporary Thailand, the notion of love is a complicated one. Love, as an ideology, is inextricably linked to the nation," explains Suwichakornpong.
For Suwichakornpong, the film began with the group of young people. In a piece she wrote for the Film Study Center at Harvard, the director explains: „I wanted to make a film about young people. This inevitably led me to questions about love. In contemporary Thailand, the notion of love is a complicated one. Love, as an ideology, is inextricably linked to the nation. (…) It (…) is used to describe ones dutiful relationship to the nation, religion, and king.”
In JAI JUMLONG this interweaving of private feelings with political signification creates a fabric of scenes and sounds. Much is reminiscent of her previous film, KRABI, 2562, on which Suwichakornpong worked with British director Ben Rivers. Both films are structured around a particular place – KRABI, 2562 somewhat more stringently, JAI JUMLONG somewhat more loosely. In both films, a mosaic of stories, legends and historical set pieces develops into a study of contemporary Thai culture. Both are heavily shaped by the sound design by Ernst Karel. Suwichakornpong grants this design a greater autonomy here than in her earlier films: in the opening scene, for instance, the sound evokes the history of the landscape through which the train is passing. At the same time, the ambient sound coheres more strongly than in earlier films into a continuous soundscape of quiet chirping, whirring, buzzing and humming.
In KRABI, 2562, a young woman takes a ferry to one of the islands popular with tourists from around the world in the eponymous province. A young tour guide shows her the sights. The young woman claims to be a location scout; when she speaks to the hotel receptionist, she acts the part of a market researcher; she tells a projectionist that her parents were frequent movie goers. The different stories open up the various places for her in different ways: the tour guide rattles off films that were shot in the area; her conversation with the projectionist opens up the world of Thai cinema during democratization in the eighties. Then she suddenly disappears and her movements are investigated by the police. In between, there are numerous digressions: a vignette about a commercial shoot at the beach, scenes of the young woman exploring the area and of the tour guide visiting a local beekeeper. Every scene – some of them only as long as a single shot – is given time to calmly unfold.
There are a number of reoccurring elements in JAI JUMLONG and the feature-length films Suwichakornpong made before. This is particularly true for the three films beginning with BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK (2016). Her debut MUNDANE HISTORY (2009) stands out in terms of the distinctly more classical way it tells its story. The relationship between a paralysed young man from a wealthy family and his caregiver is used to hone in on themes of desire and class in contemporary Thailand.
Open narrative structure
In Suwichakornpong’s second feature, BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK, the story of Thailand’s fragile democratization surfaces for the first time. Forty years after a massacre of protesting Thammasat University students, a young filmmaker goes to the countryside with one of the leaders of the protest in order to write a script with her. Flashbacks give a simple rundown of the story. The day-to-day life of the two women and the young domestic help who takes care of them opens up the film. The young director visits a nearby mushroom farm and takes a walk through the forest. After an interlude, the action begins again with different actors. A different director interviews a different survivor.
BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK, like Suwichakornpong’s subsequent films, makes visible a society that is shaped by its most recent history while being seemingly untouched by it on the everyday level. This visibility coincides with a more open narrative structure. Beginning with the set-up of her films, Suwichakornpong resists the temptation to draw straight lines between historical events and the present. All of her films since BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK include excerpts from historical footage. In that film, she takes up a scene from George Méliès’ A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), in which one of the excursionists to the moon sticks his umbrella in the lunar soil and it promptly grows into a mushroom. The excerpt refers back to the theme of mushroom cultivation, which had come up before, and divides the film into two halves.
The director has found a form in which all elements carry meaning equally and affect each other reciprocally.
A short historical film excerpt also marks the midpoint of KRABI, 2562. Here it is evidently an ethnographic film showing the caves of the island. In JAI JUMLONG, historical shots of a zoo in Bangkok are paired with audio material of the last days before its closure in late September 2018. The history and the present casually permeate each other in Suwichakornpong’s films. Similar characters and constellations of characters return again and again as well. The hierarchy and behavioural patterns of the relationship between tour guide and tourist in KRABI, 2562, for instance, is reminiscent of those between the young director in BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK and the housekeeper.
In every film since BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK, Suwichakornpong has her characters experience mystical, surreal encounters in the forest: in BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK, the young director follows a child in a bear costume; in KRABI, 2562, the star of the commercial has a surreal encounter while urinating against a tree; in JAI JUMLONG, a young woman, who at the beginning is seen wandering through the forest, turns into a young man while sleeping in a clearing. Forests in Suwichakornpong’s films are the refuge of the fantastic.
In her most recent films especially, the director has found a form in which all elements carry meaning equally and affect each other reciprocally. The soundscapes function here also as a bracket for the open visual level. Randomly captured observations like the scene in KRABI, 2562, in which monkeys climb on a piece of art and use it as a shady resting spot find their place next to plot-driving scenes and historical film clips. Editor Aacharee Ungsriwong assembles all of these different elements into snapshots of Thai society, without condensing them into some sort of model or using them to simply imitate reality.
Fabian Tietke is a film programmer based in Berlin. His film writing appears primarily in the daily newspaper taz – die tageszeitung.
Translation: Millay Hyatt