Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (2013)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, December 2014

Synopsis: Thailand, 2012. In their final term of high school, Mary Malony and her best friend Suri embark on a project to design the school yearbook, photographing one classmate per day on the school rooftop during magic hour. A research trip to the jungle (funded by her art teacher) ends with Mary hospitalised after accidentally ingesting magic mushrooms. Mary falls in love with M., and takes a solo trip to Paris. The art teacher quits, and Mary is hospitalised again when her knock-off mobile phone explodes (not for the first time). Mary and Suri find the suicide note of missing classmate Gift in the jungle. The Headmaster dies (his last words being “Mary soon”), and his replacement runs the school like a tyrant. Mary starts using the backs of receipts to note down the weird things that happen to her. Already lovesick over M., unhappy that Suri may be leaving to study in Austria when school finishes, and indignant that the school is curtailing her creative control over the yearbook, Mary is sent into a tailspin of depression by the sudden death of Suri. Though encouraged by the school doctor to repeat the mantra “Mary is happy”, Mary drifts in a melancholic daze. She is briefly imprisoned in the school’s dark basement for speaking her mind about the yearbook. Finally, she leaves school forever, if not happy, then more experienced – and goes home to an uncertain future.

Review: “Is it too sad? Should I delete it?”, Mary Malony (Patcha Poonpiriya) asks her best friend Suri (Chonnihkan Netjui) near the beginning of Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit‘s Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy. “But it’s so pretty.”

Thamrongrattanarit, like Mary, is concerned with locating and preserving the aesthetic and narrative pleasures of sadness and loss – yet the fact that the colourful bird which Mary has just photographed is a dead parrot hints also at the Pythonesque absurdity which Thamrongrattanarit will bring to lighten these otherwise heavy themes. In her final term of high school, Mary is on the cusp of adulthood, while also facing her first awkward, painful crushes, and a possible future without Suri constantly by her side – and the pretty bird lying on the ground will soon find human analogues in fellow schoolgirls who vanish or die. Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is a coming-of-age story preoccupied as much with the leaving behind as with the moving forward, although as Thamrongrattanarit captures his softly spoken heroine in a period of great change, he does not shrink from surreal digressions (exploding phones, dawn peacock hunts, bakery attacks, etc.).

Soon Mary turns her photographic skills to producing “a yearbook to remember everyone”, infused with her own quirky tastes. “I wanna do a minimalist style, with a photo book,” she explains, “Spare text with beautiful photos.” She will also, puzzled by the random-seeming incidents in her life, start noting them all down on the backs of receipts as a sort of Sibylline diary, with the express purpose of “calculating future probability.” Both the yearbook and the piecemeal diary are reflexes for the structure of Thamrongrattanarit’s film itself. Where his feature debt 36 (2012) confined itself to 36 headed still-frame shots that mimicked the number of exposures in a conventional 35mm film roll, the von Trier-like obstruction that he has chosen for Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is to build his story around 410 consecutive tweets (the text of which regularly appears in the centre of the screen) taken from the stream of a girl (@marylony) whom he had never met. Choosing a set of her tweets that arbitrarily spanned the period between his being accepted for the Venice Biennale College Workshop and his proposed project being selected (in January of 2013), Thamrongrattanarit uses them to extrapolate fictively, often wildly, a slice of a young woman’s life – and thus offers a vivid model for the way that personal identity is both packaged and unpacked in the age of social media. This desultory, hyperbolic stream (of consciousness) may, with  its violent mood swings, smell just like teen spirit – but it equally reflects the fragmentary, adolescent forms of Twitter too. Yearbooks, diaries, tweets, and youth itself are all embodiments of ephemerality – yet transitory need not mean trivial, and although Thamrongrattanarit takes a mostly playful look at the melancholic vagaries of Mary’s life, there is also the sense that he is capturing, on the fly, something vital and urgent about modern human experience and the multifaceted, polysemic nature of our virtual lives.

Even as these tweets are appropriated, misconstrued, reconfigured and ironised to embroider Mary’s onscreen existence, she openly struggles to understand the mysterious external forces that appear to be pulling her strings. “Recently my life’s been so weird, I do things without any reason,” she confides in Suri, “It’s like being controlled.” Indeed, when her Headmaster suddenly (everything happens suddenly in this film) dies, his replacement brings a fascist order to the school, and Mary finds her creative control over the Yearbook being wrested from her hands. As she muses on issues of free will and determinism, she is also articulating the tug-of-war between the autonomous authority of the tweets, and the artificial, sometimes perverse interpretation that Thamrongrattanarit’s adaptation imposes on them. Thamrongrattanarit himself makes two bizarre ‘divine’ interventions in the film, first via a signed printout of the film’s title (prompting Mary to ask, “Why me? This is freaky. Who’s Nawapol?”), and secondly voicing the most intractable of all @marylony’s tweets, “tannase is an enzyme”, from the shadows of the school’s basement dungeon. There is also a cameo from Jean-Luc Godard or at least a lookalike (aptly accompanied by jump cuts), and several references to Wong Kar-wai (even if Mary believes he directed Life of Pie [sic]). Mary imagines her life as a movie, so why shouldn’t Thamrongrattanarit? Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy delivers an offbeat yet entirely palatable feed of contradictory insights into the difficult teen years – both sad and pretty – of our new millennium.

Anton Bitel