A smart way to get a first feature noticed is to make it distinctive; stylise or structure it in a way that will generate a talking point for conversation to surround. 36, from new Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit does precisely this, structuring the story around a piece of neat formalism encapsulated in the title.
Made of entirely static compositions, 36 mimics the format and function of a film camera. thirty six ‘exposures’ of the camera’s roll are divided with numbers and notes like prints in an album. Across thirty six shots that make thirty six varying length, intertitled and neatly separated scenes, characters wander in and out of the motionless frame, conversations are had and heard and time passes. The shutter opens and closes, the perspective changes, and a story in thirty six acts plays out.
Fortunately, Thamrongrattnarit’s scope extends beyond this pure formalism, as a film made entirely of static compositions is hardly new, even given the camera shutter explanation. Blending the experimental mode with a more traditional narrative function, 36 merges its form with its subtext; opening discussions about the camera’s role as a tool as well as emotional aid, photography and memory, the fallibility of digital and analog records, and the fluctuating, often uncontrollable dynamics of human relationships, and exploring these things through both the story and the character’s engagements, and the structure of the film itself.
Over the film’s course, a Location Scout (Sai) and Art Director (Oom) walk around various potential locations for a feature film, under the loose instruction to find ‘a place with a past,’ a directive that serves to describe the film overall. Though drawn together initially through work, they begin to establish a closer relationship, conversing in that gently philosophical, firmly unpretentious style that viewers of fellow long surnamed countryman Apitchapong Weerasethekul (to whom Thamrongrattanarit evidently owes a lot) will be familiar with.
As the two’s interactions become less formal, and the remit of their discourse grows wider (and more overtly flirtatious) we learn that the Sal studied architecture, and that Oom’s background is in vetinary sciences. He shoots film, she favours digital. She shoots frequently and without much thought, he shoots rarely but decisively, with a more overtly artistic intent. He expounds the virtues of looking and not living behind the lense, she counters that the camera immortalises the moment, and that once captured, can be remembered and relived forever. She records landscapes, he captures people.
These dialogues, though loose and wandering, veer from contemplative to flirtatious throughout the film, and bloom with the character’s bond. As the work comes to completion, the two drift apart. Oom, who avoids appearing in photographs as much as possible, exists only in Sal’s memories. When he reappears, its in pictures taken by Sal but lost for a long time through harddrive corruption, a visible reaffirmation of his position as spectre in her subconscious since their parting, distant but omnipresent in the vault of emotional memory. Thamrongrattanarit perfectly emulates both the way professional relationships can drift towards something more personal given the right conditions, but also how similarly people can drift when those same serendipitous conditions disperses.
Starkly minimalist, but offering growing pools of interpretative depth, 36 reveals a debut director with command of mood and tone that is commendably strong. He establishes immediately the kind of somnambulistic tranquility that only South East Asian directors seem able to effortlessly generate, and guides it gently towards something melancholic but not entirely sad. As 36 explores, ultimately, the ephemerality of all things - human experience, physical record, constructed and natural landscape - the viewer is free to decode and experience Sal and Oom’s exploration of these things and themselves, or think about their own understanding of them in their own world. Thirty six shots, but a lifetime of memory.
Following his first film 36, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit again blends formal experimentation with more traditionalist impulses in second feature Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy. Thamrongrattanarit takes 410 tweets from the twitter feed of a 17 year old girl Mary (@marylony) and adapts them into a continuing, sequential narrative, building his film out of the twists and turns in her timeline. As might be expected of the public mental digressions of a girl at such a transitional stage, her story steers as much towards the hopeful, even exultant, as it spirals into melancholia and frustration.
Somehow, across an eventful 127 minutes, Thamrongrattanarit manages to piece together a flowing, logical linear story out of a series of largely abstract, unrelated sentences, all without rearranging them, editing them or breaking Mary’s own written sequence. This is no small achievement, considering both the loose, aphoristic nature of Mary’s tweets (e.g. RAIN DREAM DREAM), and the difficulty of converting words and thoughts into images, (how do you visually represent something as epigrammatic as IF WE UNDERSTAND OURSELVES, OTHERS WILL UNDERSTAND US?)
Indeed, as Thamrongrattanarit has said of his subject, “she tweets what she thinks, not what she sees.” As well as posing a significant challenge, this gives the director plentiful space to interpret her words to his will. Thamrongrattanarit chooses differing levels of how literally to take the meaning of Mary’s tweets, presenting them frequently in an unexpected, often even seemingly unrelated manner. Certain tweets force his directorial hand (TODAY I WANT TO RAISE A JELLYFISH initiates a barely five second long standalone digression where a jellyfish is ordered online, arrives frozen, and is then quickly forgotten), and others come across as an action that could have been redirected elsewhere but appealed to his creative streak (e.g. TODAY IN FRANCE follows an unexpected jump cut, transporting Mary quickly from Thailand to Paris, and using the subsequent tweets as a way of explanation.)
Mary’s tweets are ambiguous enough to facilitate an almost totally open-ended interpretation in terms of the action unfolding - something Thamrongrattanarit exploits, pulling together a linear story of Mary’s evolving friendship with best friend Suri and their work on a photographic year book together, and her very typically teen-girl pursuit of love interest M - but the emotional states expressed in the writings, Mary’s feelings of love, longing, happiness and sadness, are more literal and universal. Using Mary’s searching, surprisingly philosophical tweet style, Thamrongrattanarit represents her mental states, guiding actress Patcha Poonpiriya, whose eyes express a lot, through the motions of outwardly expressing the movements of a psyche in visual terms.
Thamrongrattanarit takes any tweet with a degree of subjectivity as a chance to redirect Mary’s life further towards the surreal, divulging into pockets of cinematic referentiality, calling up Wong Kar Wai visually and conversationally, (though Mary thinks he directed Life of Pi for some reason), and briefly introducing (a lookalike) Jean Luc-Godard for a cameo; or finding ways to liven up Mary’s often abstruse tweets (aloof sentences become exploding mobile phones, tear gas attacks or dawn peacock raids in Thamrongrattanarit’s mind). Aestheticising the world to match his protagonist’s state of mind, Thamrongrattanarit washes the film in a palette of soft pastel hues, pinking the sky and washing out Thailand’s mixture of plantlife greens and grey concrete structures that have fallen into disrepair.
In Thamrongrattanarit’s films, both loosely about the relationship between technology and documentation, whether in digital photography in 36 (more directly ‘documentative,’ yet still entirely subjective) and in Mary is Happy through the use of social media to project lifestyle (much more obviously unreliable and cultivated) there is something of a celebration of our small, personal narratives. The idea of adapting something as trivial as a twitter feed may seem to celebrate a generation’s narcissistic tendencies, but in Mary is Happy at least, by taking the online mental scribblings of a young girl he had never even met, Thamrongrattanarit reveals that there are untold stories everywhere, and that the dominant narratives don’t have to prevail. Through Twitter and other social networks, people are writing their own stories, and building relationships in entirely new ways. Thamrongrattanarit does well to recognise this, as well as the potential of the medium for adaptation and experimentation. As Mary tweets, WE’VE HAD SHARED STORIES SINCE FOLLOW BUTTON CREATED, and as nauseating as it may be to some to acknowledge this, for many social media has become as valid a form of expression as any.
Compared to 36′s pitch-perfect evocation of mood and tone, Mary is Happy is a more muddled, overly-twee affair (Thamrongrattanarit is more at east with adult emotional states than wild, irrational adolescent ones perhaps) and where 36 wrapped beautifully in a succinct, well paced seventy minutes, the two hours that Thamrongrattanarit builds out of Mary’s ponderings feels stretched, occasionally tedious. However, by again taking a concept that reads like a gimmick but plays like anything but, Thamrongrattanarit creates a mildly experimental form of filmmaking packaged so sweetly or poignantly as for the formalist streak and qualities to be barely noticeable, an act of quiet deception that suggests a director with a growing command over form as well as emotion, someone with significant promise who has yet to reach his prime.