Shot between 2008 and 2016, “on every operating railway route in Thailand” (according to the title card that closes out the film), Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s directorial debut closely observes a cross-section of life and activity in the railway cars that criss-cross the country. The documentary’s subject matter and formal approach is almost identical to J.P. Sniadecki’s recent anthropological observation of China’s railway network and its passengers, The Iron Ministry (2014). But in parsing their similarities, illustrative differences emerge: Sniadecki works with a handheld camera and a subdued visual palette, and occasionally interacts with his subjects. Chidgasornpongse remains stoic, by contrast, never questioning the railway passengers. His locked-off camera watches on, capturing all of the colour and movement of Thai society.
Railway Sleepers begins with a stationary shot looking down train tracks, as dogs and birds wander around. The shot begins to track backwards, and it is clear that the camera has been positioned at the rear of a train carriage. Soon, we are passing through a landscape of verdant greenery that recalls Jia Zhangke’s detour to Taiwan in his 2010 documentary I Wish I Knew, when he paid a visit to another occasional train lover, Hou Hsiao-Hsien. While Railway Sleepers will provide further intermittent glimpses of the landscapes that lie outside the railway carriages, for the most part Chidgasornpongse focuses his attention on their interiors. Early in the film, this consists of chaotic scenes on packed trains as his subjects press in, sometimes very close to the camera. Snatches of conversation are overheard, people come and go, and the film approximates the rhythms of a train journey itself. Chidgasornpongse’s patient observation allows small details to accrue: a school child loses a tooth, a hand juts out of a window to feel the rain, and a young man in a Sid Vicious t-shirt prods at a dragonfly perched on the window sill. As night falls, the grain in the digital image comes out – as do the musical instruments and bottles of liquor. Finally, the sounds of revelry die away leaving only the passage of the tracks beneath on the soundtrack, as passengers are rocked gently into unconsciousness. These scenes of railway tranquillity literally fulfil the titular pun, resembling Jem Cohen’s short Blessed Are the Dreams of Men (2006), and also the images of deep somnolence at the centre of Cemetery of Splendour (2015). Perhaps the latter is no coincidence: that film’s director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is the producer of Railway Sleepers, and Chidgasornpongse has credits as Assistant and Second Unit director on several of Weerasethakul’s films.
The influence of Weerasethakul is perhaps most apparent in the final stretches of Railway Sleepers, as the film shifts its stratified focus into the relative stillness of sleeper carriages, and the camera has the time to linger on small, strange details like a shiny chrome door handle which wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the precise inhumanity of the hospitalscape in Syndromes and A Century (2006). Railway Sleepers shares another similarity with Weerasethakul’s filmmaking, in its desire to re-evaluate Thailand’s recent national history. Railway Sleepers makes its historical intention clear when it begins with an epigraph from Thai King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) dated from April 1893, in which the monarch links the coming of the railroads with the fortunes of nation building, stating, “I give my blessing to the train company to gain and to profit, to forever prosper, and to enrich our Siam with many benefits.” In its panoply of images, Chidgasornpongse’s film variously fulfils and ironically rebuffs this pronouncement. Intermittently, the film incorporates black and white archival photographs depicting the construction of the railways, and late in the film, we are allowed to listen in on a conversation in which two passengers discuss this history of labour and ambition, and the presence of British and German engineers, and, later, Japanese Imperial forces. This lengthy dialogue breaks with the fragmentary nature of the film, spending time with two fellow travellers, as their conversation intertwines railway and personal history.
Beyond its immediate local context, Railway Sleepers joins another historical tradition, that of the train film. This stretches back to the origins of cinema itself, with Lumiere and Porter, extending through Keaton to, much more recently, Snowpiercer (2013) and Train to Busan (2016). In its gentle way, Railway Sleepers affords us space to contemplate the enduring popularity of such films. There is something inherently cinematic in the spectacle of railway travel, as in a universally recognisable moment in Railway Sleepers when we draw alongside another train passing on a parallel track, the camera coming close to the passengers within before the train diverts slowly away, disappearing down its own track. Perhaps, too, there is something locomotive in the mechanism of cinema itself, as in the shot late in Railway Sleepers, when the train plunges into day, its forward momentum casting light and shadows flickering across the walls of the carriage, like the play of light within a zoetrope.