Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 01, 2017 5:41 pm 
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A cinematic experiment of great elegance, all in the head

Anocha Suwichakornpong is a made-to-order film festival darling. Her films are exquisite, hushed, and conceptually complex. Their visual debt to her more famous countryman "Joe" Apichatpong Weerasethakul is obvious. The point of departure of By the Time It Gets Dark, is a film, or film within a film, related to the 1976 massacre of Thai student dissidents at a university. The settings are beautiful - perhaps too beautiful: this seems like a brochure for a decoration magazine. The people are too beautiful too, including the young men whose regular features - and, at one point, smooth naked thighs - are lovingly dwelt upon. When anything serious happens, like the death of a leading cast member in a car accident, it goes by with such a tiny scintilla of emotion that you don't wonder that the massacre doesn't build up much heat either.

A brace of art-film critics, excerpted by [url=""]Critics Roundup[/url], have penned enthusiastic comments on the film. Jay Kuehner (from Toronto, Sept. 2016), for instance: "To call what happens in By the Time It Gets Dark a 'plot' is to do it a disservice of sorts, such is the beguilingly self-reflexive nature of Anocha Suwichakornpong’s becalmed, trippy, historically conscious fungus of a film." Which is to say it vanishes up its own arse, seduced by its own cleverness and elegance. Perhaps it is "deeply felt," as a festival blurb claims. Certainly a massacre, with thousands injured and at least 50 to 100 killed by royalists and right wing troops, is something to do more than merely ponder but also to be angry and disturbed about.

Suwichakornpong presents protagonists who regularly change identities and scenes that play through twice in different ways with different actors. Such gestures resemble Rivette's methods in Last Year at Marienbad - except that film was clearly enigmatic and made no claim to be about an historical event. Even the favorable Film Comment comment by Jonathan Romney acknowledges that this film is in an "incongruously lyrical style, given the theme of state violence." That is the basic problem. The other is that what happens on the screen, while beautiful, is becalmed, and ultimately unengaging, except as an exercise in style and self-reflexive cinematic experimentalism. Experimentalism can be gutsy. This version is cool and weightless. Like the visitors to immaculate apartments repeatedly shown removing their shoes, this film handles everything with kid gloves, and never gets its feet wet or engages our emotions. I was not in the mood for it, and the use of a massacre as the starting point for a cinematic art piece offended me in such a way that I don't think I ever would be.

By the Time It Gets Dark/dao khanong, 105 mins., debuted at Locarno, followed by over a dozen festivals including Toronto, London, and Rotterdam. Screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA series New Directors/New Films of March 2017.

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