by Ruairí McCann
Each of Anocha Suwichakornpong’s four features has felt like a garden of forking paths. Carefully cultivated and overgrown on the structural and narrative level; in their susceptibility to sudden and gnomic about-faces and metastasis, and in her meter; as she jumbles different formats and wavers across the thin lines separating fiction, non-fiction, re-enactment and fantasy. This instability also motivates the colouring of the people that cross her frame. As signalled by the English language title of her first film, Mundane History (2009), one of her prime bed bugs is that of Thai history and how its most transformative and destructive tendencies hang like a millstone around the neck of the present, felt not only on a societal level, acknowledged and unacknowledged, but on a day to day, individual basis.
More specifically, this important, overarching notion is being responded to by an uncertain youthful presence. The actual primary focal points of her films are usually artists, students and workers ranging from those just at the root of maturity to others on the precipice of being middle aged, dealing with the persistence of the past but also the limitations of the present-day world it has wrought. Her people are lost souls, searching for some tincture of transcendence, aware that their lives are currently on one route and yet, with a sidestep, could end up on another.
This is all bound in her newest feature, Jai jumlong or Come Here (2021), though not in an all-encompassing sense. Instead, it has the scope of a missive. I tread carefully with the latter word since it could connate a work that is merely bite-sized, quickly conceived and fired, which to a certain extent is the case. This is a rich and carefully considered film, that is fleet of foot in both design and execution. Inherent in the conditions under which it was made, and in it’s strange skirting and shifts, there can be found an artist testing out several ideas in purposeful denial of a thesis and in a game of constant, formal and spiritual incipience.
This speculation of multiple places, people, modes of being and behaving, is non-linear though not exactly free form. It has ballast in the form of two spare and cut-up narratives. One follows a young theatre troupe, three men and a woman in their twenties (Sornrapat Patharakorn, Bhumibhat Thavornsiri, Sirat Intarachote playing the men and Apinya Sakuljaroensuk playing the woman), who are on an excursion to the western Thai province of Kanchanaburi. At the beginning they arrive to visit the remains of the Hellfire Pass, an especially treacherous stretch of the Thai-Burma railway, which was initiated during World War 2 by the Japanese and constructed with the forced labour, and blood, of many Allied prisoners, as well as indentured immigrants from China, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries.
They find the museum temporarily closed and so, in lieu, walk the line for a bit, before moving on to relax and cavort riverside. Intermittently we get glimpses of their art, in a casual context, on a stage open to the outdoors and in a closed black box space. These performances are defined by both a zoomorphic quality and a self-referentiality that are profuse and interlaced throughout the rest of the film.
That name, ‘Hellfire’, seen printed on a sign, along with later scenes of raucous animal pageantry, are the pungent but secluded elements of violence, rumbling underneath this oneiric drift. This violence becomes more pronounced, to the point of breaching the surface, with the other strand occurring concurrently. It follows another young woman (Waywiree Ittianunkul) wading through the same lush setting. Instead of finding her in a state of performativity or languishment however, she seems to be greatly, mysteriously distressed. Her disorientation eventually leads to a momentous event, a mystical, and inextricably physical, transformation.
The movie is an eddy, in perpetual motion. The train ride which opens the film is reprised near the end but going in another direction, with the events of the film its itinerary and passengers. In between there is the near-constant presence, visually and sonically, of the river and the overall tone and rhythm are fluvial, frequently suggests that the people and symbols are detritus floating downstream, occasionally colliding with each other, some more prominent above the surface one moment, and then others the next, but all within a relatively strict, set course.
Harmonic and contrapuntal would be the operative words. Not just in the more literal and specific sense of how sound is employed and treated, but also more generally speaking, to describe the film’s larger formal approach and structure.
Anocha has put together, and in concert, patterns of morphing and countering signifiers. A testing of the confluence between human and animal identities, both lived in and performed, and the textures of natural and urban environments, in an approach that doesn’t entail marking out and sorting into dichotomies. Instead, Anocha cross-pollinates, as textures and the living move fluidly across and between visual and aural planes. Real animals: the ambience of birdsong and insect chirrups and later, footage of zoo animals, interspersed with feigned animality, as one troupe member frequently imitates a dog. In a centrepiece sequence, the troupe engage in a literal, revolving dance. Repetitive yet in flux as they hunker down and move around, variously barking, squawking and growling out different members of a menagerie. The occasional use of split screen aligns contrasting scenes and landscapes or else ones that are similar but not quite the same. Rendering them with an uncanny effect, the illusion that you are viewing single scenes or images when they are actually multiple, splintered.
The voiceless, distressed woman seems to echo, through rhyming action and one surreal join of a scene where they wordlessly share the same frame, the woman in the theatre troupe. Out of the four she is given the strongest brush stroke of a personality and interiority during a scene where a lull in a drinking session ushers forth a moment of rumination. She confesses to one of her companions that she sees a future where she gives up acting for something more stable like marketing, before they are interrupted by a distant firework display. This disquiet, interior until it is decisively and briefly expressed, is omnipresent but inchoate in the case of the distressed woman. The need for a change, either self-willed or imposed, is felt yet far-off and nebulous for the woman in the troupe, while for the other woman, this need manifests wordlessly, in the more immediate form of intense spiritual and physical turbulence.
All this doubling and redoubling, re-enacting and rewriting, hits a peak when the aforementioned conversation by the river is later repeated in a more theatrical context. The ineluctability yet volatility of finding and granting meaning, and to ritually perform our own experience, are beautiful raised and executed in this heightened moment of deconstruction, which immediately sets off a whirlwind. A dolly across and then a dive into a rear projection, which turns the scene into a caravan of changing and travelling forms.
The film’s minor key quality—its 68 minutes and its looseness and simplicity only just shy of plotlessness—was, according to Anocha herself, staked out in contrast to the conditions and approach that went into her then previous feature, and breakout, By the Time it Gets Dark (2016). That film was a slow ferment, taking two years just to write the script. Processes of production and post-production were delayed and extended by not only the necessitous vagaries of the creative process, but the rigmarole of its financial backing. For many filmmakers around the world today working outside of commerciality, getting a film funded means a distended period of begging and borrowing from many different Peters and Pauls, i.e., small festival and public funds and independent financiers. Ready to embark on a new project but the experience of this ungainly process still fresh in her mind, Anocha planned to hurdle this petty hegemony by writing and shooting Come Here over a matter of a few months in 2018, using an even smaller budget than usual. * Nevertheless, a series of other, semi-spontaneously arranged and made projects—her contribution to the anthology Mekong 2030 and Krabi, 2562 (2019), a feature co-directed with British filmmaker Ben Rivers that is even more of a macédoine than this one—along with other obligations as a producer and lecturer, scuppered her plan for an accelerated release.
Presumably, the macro-concussion of the pandemic was also a significant factor in turning a work that was intended to get out of the gate quick, to one whose first introduction to a wider audience was on watermarked screeners, nearly three years later.
Regardless of the luck of the draw, or how it has been or will be seen, Come Here is a beautifully constructed and free work of cinema. Considered and sustained and yet every passing minute is admirably limber. It feels like it could turn any one direction, to the extent that it feels like it took a certain statement of Jacques Rivette’s, accidentally channelling Hegel, as a challenge. Paraphrased, he said that a major impetus of art is that internal mystery that is the artist’s relationship to their own self, and to the wider social contract and social contract, of whose nature they are only really half-aware, but at least…
“He must know that he carries a mystery within, a secret, and that he tries to bring it out, to get rid of it, to expel it, as Cocteau said. But he doesn’t know how, he does it through fictions and by referring to laws—certain laws that concern him personally, but also tower above him and impose themselves on him like an external necessity, like fate.” †
Anocha’s film is one of those fictions, bamboozling to an audience and, I believe, to herself yet determined and invigorated by these unknowns at play.
Ruairí McCann is a writer, musician and film critic from County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland and who is currently based in Belfast. He sits on the boards of the Spilt Milk Festival and Sligo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Mubi’s Notebook and Screen Slate. [Twitter]
*For further viewing and another forking path, see Lemongrass Girl (2021), a short film that premiered at IFFR 2021, shortly before Anocha’s film. It is a docu-fiction work directed by Pom Bunsermvicha and set during the making of Come Here.