In this elliptical experimental drama from Thailand, one of the country's greatest tragedies is seen from a distance. The Thammasat University massacre of 1976 (known only as "the 6 October event" in Thailand) hangs heavily over a fractured and symbolically loaded narrative. In the quiet and pensive By the Time It Gets Dark, tragedy is distant and half-seen, but its echoes taint the march of time.
Almost impossible to sum up, By the Time It Gets Dark was six years in the making following writer-director Anocha Suwichakornpong's 2009 feature debut. Its story starts off simply and serenely, in an old country house where filmmaker Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) has retreated with Taew (Rassami Paoluengtong), a survivor of the massacre, to conduct interviews that will inform her cinematic recreation of the incident. In the country air, amid the constant sound of murmuring insects, spirits wander.
By the Time It Gets Dark is as much about the workings of memory and the unstoppable flow of time as it is about the massacre that is its impetus. Tiny, seemingly throwaway moments are shot with great feeling, and with lugubrious pacing that allows the audience to sink into every minuscule gesture and thread of profound intimacy. Boldly, Suwichakornpong abandons the film's main narrative as readily as she abandons characters, recreating early scenes with different performers, or having performers appear in completely different roles.
The fragmented nature of the film, which Suwichakornpong explained in the Q&A following the screening was actually written almost exactly as it appears on screen, can be frustrating. Narrative threads are not laid out neatly, but jumbled amid the detritus of everyday lives that only look obliquely to the film's central themes. Ultimately, though, the arresting images of the film's masterfully deployed climax bring a spectral resonance to the work.
Waste, apathy and unresolved anger inform the darkest moments of the film, and those are the threads that ultimately tie together much of the film's wanderings through time. In the context of the resonating tragedy, human lives are thrown away as quickly as table scraps. Memories and dreams are discarded unceremoniously until they come burbling up from the depths like mould or fungus.
By the Time It Gets Dark arguably does not have a single definitive interpretation, and that is part of the thrill of seeing a work this boldly experimental and unique. Audiences seeking a satisfying and concrete narrative are warned to stay away, but anyone looking for a thought-provoking and sensual film into which they can sink should put this one at the top of their list.
By the Time It Gets Dark is screening as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival. Catch the second and final screening on Saturday June 17th.