Review first published by Sight & Sound, June 2014
Synopsis: Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. Location scout Sai and art director Oom form a bond while visiting potential places “with a past” for a small production – even if Oom gently mocks Sai’s ingrained habit of photographing everything rather than looking with her own eyes, as well as her preference for digital media.
Two years later, Sai’s director Karn shows her a photograph of an old clinic from his childhood, hoping to tap its nostalgic resonance for his latest shoot. Finding the building now demolished, Sai discovers, while searching for a suitable replacement, that her hard drive of professional – and personal – photos from 2008 has been damaged. On her best friend Jham’s advice, Sai turns to old schoolfriend Kai, now an IT specialist, to restore the lost digital files. Revisiting several locations from that time, Sai learns that a landlady’s young daughter whom Oom had photographed has since died. Sai recovers two photos (of herself) from 2008 with the help of an ex-boyfriend, copies some more from Jham’s collection, and after some months’ delay picks up her fully restored drive from Kai – but the small set of photographs that she took of Oom, or that he took with her camera, turns out to be permanently corrupted. Meanwhile, far away, Oom uses as a screensaver the one existing digital photo of Sai and Oom together. Returning to the rooftop where that photo was taken, Sai calls Karn to tell him that she thinks she has found the right location for his film.
Review: As she spends time with art director Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad) photographing old buildings, Sai (Vajrasthira Koramit) reveals that before she became a location scout she had studied archaeology. The two activities hardly seem unrelated: after all, currently under instructions from her director to find “a place with a past”, Sai is exploring the ruins of a former love motel, opened just after the Vietnam War. “I used to live nearby, I passed it everyday,” Sai tells Oom, making it clear that this building’s history and her own have for a time overlapped. In response, Oom suggests slyly that he could show her a better love motel later. Here location is regarded as an archive of human associations – past, present and possibly future – where the genius loci is more than the mere structure of the building.
Something similar might be said of Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit‘s feature debut, whose rigorously maintained structure is made to accommodate all manner of complex human feelings. The film comprises 36 single-take scenes shot from a fixed camera, with the characters occupying the periphery of the frame and only occasionally drifting into the centre like the accidental subjects of a snapshot, or perhaps like ghosts caught on camera haunting an abandoned locale. Shown in sequence, these shots are each formally numbered and idiosyncratically captioned, like photos collated in an album. Of course in the shifting world of photography, 36 is a number that comes with its own archaeology: for conventionally there are (or were) 36 exposures in a full roll of film for the kind of old-fashioned analogue camera that Oom himself still uses, marking his character out as a dinosaur destined to disappear (which he soon does). In this way, the very title 36 is not just an arbitrary number, but by obliquely evoking a vanishing photographic medium, perhaps even the death of film itself, it encodes Thamrongrattanarit’s key themes of ephemerality, change and loss – as does the fact that 36, for all its mimicry of analogue photographic forms, has been shot digitally.
Unlike Oom, Sai employs a modern digicam with which she daily takes shots in their 100s for her location work, and occasionally for her more personal collection. “It’s easy now,” she explains to Oom, “you just keep them on a hard disk.” Yet for all her confidence in the power of this newer format to preserve the past, two years later, when Oom has long since left the picture, Sai realises that the photos stored on her hard drive – including the small number that she took of Oom (who did not like to be photographed) – have become corrupted and unusable. At about the same time she also discovers that a young girl whom Oom had photographed at one of the locations has subsequently died, and that the old building where her current director would next like to shoot has been demolished. Indeed, several of the actual buildings that form the backdrop of 36 have since been replaced with modern highrise, making Thamrongrattanarit’s feature itself a repository of national memory. So although in its opening scenes 36 seems to be a breezily elliptical portrait of a relationship that develops between the frames, it soon becomes a melancholic film of memory, absence and reinvention. As the increasingly disoriented Sai attempts to recover a lost past of fleeting moments, piecing it together from restored files, revisited locations and other people’s photographic records, she is not just nostalgically pursuing her own place with a past, but also finding a new use for it. For much as Oom had secretly stolen a copy of Sai’s files (including the only existing photograph of the two of them together) for his own use, Sai too will find a way to reappropriate her past attachments for future projects, ultimately proposing that the hotel roof where she had once spent happy hours with Oom might work as a replacement for the lost location where her director had spent his own childhood.
From these different pasts, 36 weaves a nostalgic fiction of its own, with viewers tasked to dig through this succession of plain images for the romantic narrative buried beneath, always out of shot. The elusiveness of camera-shy Oom emblematises the empty spaces of the past and the half life of memory, as digital images (whether Sai’s photographs or the shots that constitute 36 itself) are exposed as beautifully imperfect documents of human experience. Combining archaeology, photography and psychogeography, Thamrongrattanarit’s assured experiment offers minimalist surfaces with hidden depths.