With the premiere of her second feature, By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong), at Locarno Film Festival, Anocha Suwichakornpong continues to define herself as one of Thailand’s most important and unique working filmmakers. Anocha made her debut in 2009 with Mundane History, a stunning traversal of region, class, and identity in modern Thailand. The director has now taken a clear step forward with her new film, which is layered with references to the country’s complicated history, its present, the creative process informing filmmaking, and a malleability that supports the film’s metaphysical framing, marking it as one of the strongest competition films at Locarno. It was a pleasure to catch up with Anocha Suwichakornpong at the festival to talk about her latest work, the intricate process that it emerged from, and the broader contextual significance it holds within Thailand’s cinematic sphere.
I came out of Dao Khanong with a lot to digest, and I feel like I really want to get the chance to see it again at the festival. I thought it was an incredibly beautiful and complex film, and one of the strongest I’ve seen in the competition. I guess in that complexity, I found like there were a lot of disparate influences, a really wide scope that the film wanted to cover, and that it was a really layered and intricate work in what it had to say. I was interested in what inspired the work, but I feel more specifically, the manner of reconciling everything into a very coherent film, and how much the actual process of figuring out, editing, and structuring a film like this shaped it in itself.
Yeah, yeah, I mean, the film is about process. As you say, it’s actually quite interesting because you watch the about process and then you came up with this question, which is the process of … yeah.
The making of this film is … I guess it highlights this desire to know more about process.
Yeah, yeah. Were you at the press conference?
Yeah, yeah, because somebody asked about the tobacco scene, and the added scene at the tobacco farm. In many ways, that scene is the embodiment of this idea of process and transformation. It’s the part where the narrative shifts to another character, but the reason why that tobacco scene is in the film is because—and you will not necessarily get this just by watching the film—but because we were filming in this area, in the North of Thailand …
Right. Whereabouts is it set?
It’s actually between the north and the northeast. Have you been to Thailand?
No, but I’m familiar with Isaan, maybe not so much the neighbouring areas.
Yeah, it’s actually not in Isaan proper, but it’s also not the north like Chiang Mai, but it’s on the way. Historically it’s quite important because, in terms of both the politics in Thailand and also cinematically-speaking because one of the—how do you say?—the earlier films of the producer, I can’t remember the name, but the guys who made Godzilla? They …
They shot there?
Yeah, they came to Thailand with the idea of making something about wilderness and they were looking for the most remote place in Thailand to shoot the film, and this was the province everyone told him to go, because Nan … it’s called Nan; the village they shot the film about elephants in 1920s. When we went there to make this film, I actually didn’t know about this; the cinematic tie with the Hollywood film. Once we were there I learned about this, but also in the 70s, after the massacre, so many students went into hiding. They fled Black Hawk, and they went into the jungle. This was also one of the areas where the student activists went to hide. Anyway, that area is very difficult to get to. Nowadays, of course, you can go by flight, but in the past it was considered very remote and the tobacco farm that is in the film was in this area and is something that, even for Thai people, it can be very exotic. It’s not like something that you would see—I mean, you see a cigarette—but this is something from another time. Even for Thai people …
It hasn’t changed?
It hasn’t, but I think it’s a tradition that’s dying, and I wanted to, by filming it, to make an archive of it, so I decided that maybe we would put an actor there, and to preserve the memory of this place. That is also some of the process of the making of the film itself.
That’s interesting that you say that you made the film partly to do that archival thing. It reminds me of this particular conversation in the film, where the line was, “you’re living history”, and then the response was, “well, I adapt someone’s life and turn it into a film. It’s quite mundane.” First, I thought that was a weird self-reference to Mundane History because the two words were a few dialogue lines apart, and I was like, “is that a reference, or am I just seeing things in the film?”
Yeah, but you know, it’s interesting, because actually that word was corrected by someone who did the English subtitles for us. In the beginning, it was not the word “mundane,” and then we sent it to a professional subtitler, and she came back with the word “mundane.” I don’t know if it was because she had previous knowledge or not, I have no idea …
That would be funny, if it was just a little joke that they put in there.
Yeah, I’m not sure, either. Actually, I’m quite curious about that, too, yeah.
I feel like the film also has a weird conversation within itself about cinema and storytelling as well, in quite an abstract but really interesting way. I feel like a lot reviews about some filmmakers might talk about a film they’ve made as a tribute to the history of film or a tribute to the film. It seems more like a tribute to old possibilities of contemporary cinema rather than the history of it, and I thought that was a really interesting thing that I kept thinking about throughout the film, and I was just wondering how you approached the film of the work.
Yeah, it’s a tribute to cinema, but at the same time, I have to assess my own work, and my relationship with cinema. It’s not always rosy, so it’s also an examination against how much you can do, and I don’t want to over-romanticise cinema as an art form or medium. Yeah, it’s … I don’t know.
I think that answered … in terms of how you thought about filming and then editing and the final product, how you approached these very distinct parts, whether there was something—
Yeah, every stage has its own life. In the writing, which took three years, and then was continually changed because of the situation and the … not only my own situation, but also the political situation, and I had to always adapt to what was happening. Then the filming itself, which took … I was filming periodically over two years, and also had to recast some of the actors, too, in fact. Okay, that’s also interesting! At least one character I had to recast, even though we shot some stuff with her already, but she, because the filming took so long, and then I think she was losing her patience and it’s something … then she disappeared completely. She resurfaced later, but by that time …
… you were finished?
Right, so it’s complicated. Every stage had to go through its own cycle. In editing, also … I will say that in the final film, although it’s not exactly 100% as how the script is written, it’s very close to my intention structurally and more or less everything is there. Maybe I took out some scenes, but it’s basically what the script was. I tried many different ways before I finally got there, experimented with different techniques and devices. Every stage, I would say, I had to go though its own unique rebirth.
I think it’s also quite fascinating, looking at it as the latest work that you’ve made, but as something that is part of your creative career and seeing styles and aspects of former things you’ve made popping up in it and being like, “that reminds of … from there.” One of the big things was towards the end where there’s that very surreal scene where he’s wearing the fish costume, reminded me a lot, in a very loose way, of the scenes of Elvis in Graceland.
Yeah, I wasn’t conscious of it, but yeah.
I was re-watching Graceland yesterday as a pump-up or something and… after coming out of Dao Khanong, I felt really aware of how sound is used very scarcely in your work, but when it is there, it’s very moving and cathartic, so I just wanted to know whether you spend a long time looking for a certain song or whether you write scenes around a song or something. I’ve been interested in how your films are often quite minimal in terms of sound but often have these bursts of music at times, that are always really cathartic—especially in your latest work, in the conclusion. Is there something that draws you to these sorts of scenes, and do you feel finding “the perfect song” or something is quite a task?
Yeah, I get inspired by music, even though I’m not very musical myself. When I … actually, the English title (By the Time It Gets Dark) is the name of a song, and I like how it gets dark. I was listening to it a lot when I was writing the very first treatment. Then, actually I thought I was going to use it only for a short period. It was going to be a provisional title, and in the end I decided to keep it, like five years later, if I have lived with it this long, maybe this is the title. With Graceland, it started with a song, with “Love Me Tender;” that’s how I saw the first image of the film, of Elvis singing and the Elvis impersonator, too, and with this one, it’s the character with the fish costume. He’s an actor, singer, so when I listen to a … I think, generally, I find music very evocative, so even if it’s just a note, it gives me an emotion, and from that emotion I start to have an image, an image that gives birth to a film.
Going to the birth of the film itself, I was reading, probably this was just after Mundane History came out and you were talking about making the next film about different jobs, like a factory worker that’s going through different jobs.
You walk into this one like, “Oh, there she is. I think that’s her throughout the film.” But if you write down on paper “a factory worker is going through different jobs”, it’s not even remotely what you expected to see, so it’s really interesting, seeing how she goes through those mundane (for lack of a better word) jobs at the start. And then by the end, it’s such a spiritual space that she’s in, whether that’s with the shaved-head part, but also with the clubbing scene as well and how that contrasted. She’s in these two different states of transcendence in a way. I’m just really interested in whether you always saw it as being something so—
Yeah, it has come a long way round like that. The original idea of this character being the main … actually, you’re right, that how I started this project was with this woman character who keeps changing jobs; but over time, I could not help but be reflexive about this—and self-reflexive, also self-analytical, my relationship with this character. Over the period of three years when I was writing, it has transformed into the script that the film ends up being much closer to, but the character, that woman character, I would say, is the only character in the film that, up until the end, she’s the only person that’s rooted in reality as opposed to other characters who drift in and out of reality and fiction, because they all have something to do with cinema, like an actor or film director or the writer who has imagination, but she’s the one person who has to deal with the inequity of everyday life, you know, her jobs, and she’s always cleaning. She’s more like a commoner, an ordinary human being, but towards the end …
Yeah, towards the end …
Yeah, because somebody asked me why she had to go into temple to become a nun, but it’s more like … for me, this is a character. Why does this happen? She’s in search of something, and in my culture, it’s not uncommon that when you don’t have an answer, you turn to religion, and actually maybe not just Thai culture, in many cultures. In Thailand it’s just, like in Western society, maybe some people turn to religion when they’re lost, but I’m not saying that she has found the answer. The ending is very open.
Yeah, I think the ending is a perfect way to close it off. I think the lack of any particular resolution… the sudden change glitched out, and then I thought it was really a very perfectly cathartic way to end it. A quick side thing: the monks wearing white, is there a specific—
Oh, so they were nuns. So a nun would wear white and a monk would wear orange?
Okay, cool. I’d seen, obviously, a few pictures of lots of monks wearing orange.
For women, it’s white, and they’re nuns, and actually, in her social status, because there is, even in religion, the nuns are lower rank than the monks.
The final few scenes of the film were phenomenal, and I don’t want to spoil anything by describing them, but I felt they realised a lot of earlier ideas in a really overwhelming way, and broke from the pace of a lot of the earlier half of the film. How did you think about approaching these scenes, and at what point of production did you decide that this was the way to end the film?
Actually, the idea of putting a pixelated image was already there in the script. But in my script, it was the opening scene, not the end. The idea of having an image starts pixelating and eventually collapses came to me sometime in the editing process. I thought it could work as the ending (which, in a way, is also beginning). I’m interested in idea of digital image vis-a-vis celluloid. Originally, in the script, I had some small scenes that involved a dilapidated stand-alone cinema, full of dusts and cobwebs, but as you know, the development of this project took so long so that by the time I got to shoot it, I felt we really have passed the era of celluloid—when I was writing it, celluloid was living its last days—and it was better to concentrate on the idea of digital image, rather than be nostalgic and show a dying theatre.
At the start of the film, there was that interesting context really early established, about the presence of the military in Thailand, and it was weird watching the film now, four, five days after the vote in Thailand, where it seems like it’s got this cyclical element to it, where it was timeless in the the worst kind of way. There’s still that very strong influence, and I remember, because I spoke to Apichatpong Weerasethakul this time last year maybe, and he was talking about all the troubles he’d had getting his films released, like Cemetery of Splendour, having a focus on—
He decided not to release it.
I was curious with your career whether … ’cause I know Mundane History got the highest possible rating that made it difficult to distribute, and I guess if you’re going to try to distribute this, or if you’re not?
I will try my best, but actually, we have not submitted the film to the censorship board yet, because I wanted to have at least the screenings here first, and after this we will submit the film to the censorship board, and if … I just hope for the best. If they decide to ban it, I will have to accept it. I will not cut the film. I’m not going to have censorship imposing the cuts on me.
On Thailand’s film scene more broadly, I was interested in whether it’s relatively closely-knit? On one level, I feel like there’s always only a few degrees of separation, with people like Pimpaka Towira and Apichatpong Weerasethakul making films together, Lee Chatametikool editing various directors. This is sort of a double-barrelled question, in that there’s such a huge amount of phenomenal films between the directors in this more independent scene from Thailand, and I was interested in how much contact and support there was within it. What sort of future you see for cinema coming out of Thailand?
For the indie film community in Thailand, yes, I’d say we know each other quite well and collaborate sometimes, but it’s not to the extent that we function like a co-op or anything like that. Each one of us is still quite independent. But we like to support each other in the areas that we can since we’re still a small group of people—also in relation to the film industry in Thailand itself, we’re pretty small—and by sticking together, we can be stronger.
There’s definitely a trend with a lot of critics I’ve read who have struggled to write about film from Thailand without trying to link it to the work of a big figure like Apichatpong—I even remember reading reviews of Mundane History that tried to talk about his work, even though I feel that film is so different in style, inspiration, and form than his work. I feel like things are shifting away from this lately as films from Thailand are becoming more accessible internationally, though. I wanted to know whether you’ve felt this has been something in the past, if you think that the image of Thai cinema is starting to be perceived more broadly overseas, and if there are younger up-and-coming filmmakers in the country whose work you’re particularly interested in?
I’m quite hopeful with the future of Thai cinema. Apichatpong had brought Thai cinema to international stage, now there’s a new generation, even younger than myself, who are very active locally and soon I think they will start to make their way outside the country too. We have someone like Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, who had already made two features which did well in festival circuit. But he’s also very successful back home with the last feature, his third one. I think Thai cinema still has more space to expand, in and outside the country. For me, the fact that Thailand is once again under military rule, and there is currently a lot of suppression and limit to freedom of expression, it is important that Thai filmmakers must find a way to make our voices heard.
I feel like it’s a very particularly sombre festival this year, with the filmmakers who’ve passed in the last year. I know that you were a fan of Abbas Kiarostami’s work from interviews I’ve read in the past, and I think that there are definitely elements of his cinema that come through in your own work, maybe in subtle ways. I wanted to end by asking, considering this years festival is dedicated to Kiarostami, about the influence his work has had on you—and I guess yeah, if there’s anything in particular that you’ve taken from his career as a filmmaker or from his films?
Yes, I know, I still remember the first time I watched Close-Up, on VHS, on a very bad copy of VHS in New York on a TV screen, where I was by myself in the living room. It was a sunny afternoon, I was home alone in my apartment, and I had not expected what it … I had no expectations. I didn’t know what it was going to be about. I had not read anything about the film, and I think actually it was the turning point in the way I view cinema and how it has the power to transform, at least for me. I don’t know if I can change anything in society, but at least for me, it has such an impact on me that I felt, “okay, this is really something that I could give myself. I surrender.”
I think that’s a perfect place to wrap up. Thank you so much for the interview.