By the Time It Gets Dark
Director: Anocha Suwichakornpong
Year of release: 2017
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
In terms of conjuring states of transcendentalism mixed with shape-shifting narratives, Thailand is the nexus for a new kind of emerging cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendour were both works of mystical minimalism, seems to have ushered in this wave of Thai moviemaking, and in only her second feature, Anocha Suwichakornpong masterfully channels this tradition. Using the 1976 military massacre of student protesters in Bangkok as its framework, By the Time It Gets Dark emerges as a powerful meta-deconstruction on the art of filmmaking and how memories can be distorted.
The film begins as a semi-straightforward story of a filmmaker, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), interviewing a now middle-aged former protester Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) at a vacation hotel in order to formulate her eventual screenplay. Protest footage of the past is intercut with this thread, as well as scenes involving an actor, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), dealing with the ups and downs of celebrity. If all of this sounds Charlie Kaufman-esque, there's also the sight of Ann, growing disillusioned at her inability to retain her historical roots, giving direct to camera addresses about childhood telekinesis and stumbling into a forest filled with hallucinogenic mushrooms. There's also a waitress who recurs as different characters; leading things into fragmented, digressive passages which leave one feeling lost but strangely transfixed.
Movie-within-movies have been a cinematic staple for decades; a way for artists to deal with their own artistic hubris and comment on the act of creation/destruction. Clearly, Suwichakornpong identifies with Ann, the increasingly disappointed director, in that her picture seems to be wrestling with the impossibility of making a truthful historical film. By the Time It Gets Dark is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Ming Kai Leung, full of symmetrical compositions framed through reflective glass, mirrors, and shifting screens. It has the pace of a free-associative dream where a horrific event (that 1976 massacre) hovers over every frame, even as the film itself seems cautious of claiming that art can provide context or comfort. In this way, Suwichakornpong literally upends her own artistic process (complete with a late glitchy, celluloid disillusion), revealing that mystery, not clarity, is the ultimate end point.