36 (2012)

Review first published by LWLies

“We might have a problem with time,” suggests Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad), an art director visiting a building for a shoot’s pre-production. “If we have to set up at night, we might have trouble with the owner.”

Oom and location scout Sai (Vajrasthira Koramit) spend some time hanging out together at a series of potential sets for a film. Sai takes a large number of (mostly) work-related photos with her digicam, while Oom, who does not like to be photographed himself, snaps the odd shot with an old-fashioned analogue camera for his private collection.

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s feature debut 36 borrows its title and structure from the number of exposures in a conventional full-length film roll for a camera like Oom’s – even if, paradoxically, 36 has been shot digitally. The film’s first 11 takes, each coming with its own heading like a photograph in an album, document Oom’s and Sai’s developing relationship. The remaining 25 (also labelled) follow Sai two years after she has parted company with Oom. Asked to find a suitable location to match her director’s boyhood memories of a now demolished clinic, Sai discovers that her digital files from 2008 have been corrupted, and that she has lost all her photographs from that period, whether of buildings or of Oom.

Thamrongrattanarit and his DP Khumwan Pairach take an oblique, decentred approach to what they record, keeping their characters either to the edge or even out of frame (as in a snaphot taken on the fly), and leaving viewers to reconstruct events, even as Sai attempts half-heartedly to recover her own digital archive. It is a melancholic pursuit of memory and meaning, set mostly in empty, abandoned spaces whose history can only be reimagined or reappropriated. It is hardly a coincidence that we learn, in a casual aside, that Sai once studied archaeology – for she is still excavating the ‘place with a past’ for traces of lost feelings and half-recalled experiences. That several of the buildings where the film was shot have since been destroyed and replaced with condominiums makes 36 itself a psychogeographic repository, its fictions temporarily renewing the life of places now otherwise confined to the ghosts.

The “problem with time” that Oom foresees is in fact 36‘s key theme. Here everything is ephemeral, the future is always different from the past, and even the medium itself, whether film or digital, is an unstable and inexact haunt for human longings. Yet far from being a mere lament, the film is also a celebration of the way that we make, borrow or even steal our own memories, no matter how shaky their foundations. And at a mere 68 minutes in duration, Thamrongrattanarit’s 36 discontinuous scenes of change in a woman’s life are, for all their elliptical brevity, carefully paced to carry the full weight of time’s passing. The results are a whimsical yet wise catalogue of once lived-in rooms onto which Thamrongrattanarit invites us to project our own sense of nostalgia.

Anticipation: Nawapol who?

Enjoyment: 36 economical snapshots of time, memory and loss.

In Retrospect: Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. Store that name in your mind’s hard drive.

Anton Bitel