Even for many of us who are followers of South-east Asian cinema, the terrain can still remain unfamiliar, even though well-trodden. When you encounter a film such as Anatomy of Time (World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept 9, 2021) that encompasses religion, philosophy, politics, history, cinema and more, one feels the pleasure of swimming in unknown waters yet again. Philip Cheah speaks to the film’s director, Jakrawal Nilthamrong, about his cinematic tapestry.
PC: In normal stories, no matter how complex the result of the narrative becomes (through technique and editing), it always starts with a simple, small idea. What was that idea that you started with?
JN: The inspiration of Anatomy of Time came from a personal story. More than 10 years, my father had been seriously ill. I saw my mother tirelessly taking care of him with great dedication. In his final year, we went in and out of the hospital almost every other week. I think the bond of love between the two had long gone. But for some reason she committed to take care of her husband as best as she could. I was trying to understand that endurance. I never asked. But I think she indirectly taught me through all the torment in her life. For me, that experience opens up an opportunity to see the nature of suffering as transcending.
PC: Reflecting on your title, the film’s philosophical aspects are very strong – that time is something we can never grasp. Like the physical body, its beauty and radiance in youth, is always fleeting, always fading away. Why do you have such a connection with time, something that we saw in your first film, Vanishing Point (2015)?
JN: It’s true. I always like to think that once we grow up (or get old) we slowly become a different person. For Vanishing Point (2015) it’s a story of a man in different stages of life while Anatomy of Time explores that of a woman. I am interested in visualizing the concept of time, be it four-dimensional in physics or eternity in ontology. But I believe ‘time’ finds its meaning in death. And since death is never an event in life, that’s why cinema has the potential to create a comprehensible experience of the phenomenon of time.
PC: In the early scenes, Maem’s father establishes the philosophical tone of the story by his reflections on religion and philosophy, redemption and karma. If we apply this to the General, then the story seems to say that he spent his youth thirsty for power and glory, never imagining that his future would be one of decay and disability. Can you please explain the reference to the Thai Young Turks in the military, the period of the 60s that the film starts at?
JN: Thai Young Turks were a group of aspiring military officers who tried to make political changes through a series of coup d'états. They filled the political landscape of the 1960-80s with periodic power struggles. Some of the military officers who had gone through the political battles of that period were promoted as statesmen while some losers lived in shame for committing treason. It’s hard to imagine that the General will find peace at the end of his life. Obviously not through the sacrifice of his wife but perhaps the longing to find his only son who was born to another woman keeps him going through life.
PC: In addition, when the military officer visits the sick General, why is he approving the General’s sacrifice for the country (what’s the sacrifice?) and why does the shopkeeper insult the General for being a fascist and chases him away?
JN: Those scenes were created as a backdrop for the General’s character who might have gone through the rise and fall of his life as a military man. This character went through many battles. He has cracked down on the people’s uprising against military dictatorship that killed hundreds of protestors. These back stories are not fully explained in the movie because I want the audience to feel the same way as Maem, a housewife who did not take part in her husband's cruel decisions. But, in the end, she suffered the hardship as well.
PC: But if we apply Maem’s father’s philosophy to Maem herself, then is it that she has to accept the choice that she made of the General instead of Don? Are the constant images of clocks, of the dog’s births and death, meant to show Maem’s resignation to her fate?
JN: I think the philosophy her father described could be used as an analogy to Maem’s life when she is old, including trying to attain nirvana. One could interpret that endurance inside the cave (or life) could be the way that transcends you to the exit (or afterlife). I don’t think it’s a resignation to her fate but rather she embraces life as it is. Just like a smiling Sisyphus as he’s pushing the rock.
PC: There seems to be two endings to the film, one where Maem lives and one where she dies. Perhaps one way to read it is that when she lies down naked on the wooden floor near the end, she dreams of her youth when she first made love to Don. Sex is a kind of a small death, and her orgasmic ecstasy is linked to the next scene where her husband gets up. Was this your intention?
JN: The ‘ending’ or ‘death’ may seem to be the ultimate aim that she wishes for. It’s a perfect ideal of ‘death’ to have a husband die after a long-term illness, in order for her to return home and spend her last moments peacefully in the midst of nature. For me, this could be a happy ending movie, but real life is raw, nature is harsh. People who are bedridden may live longer while the person caring for the sick may even die earlier.
It was my original idea that Anatomy of Time begins with death and ends with death. Both events are not a finale. It’s quite the opposite. It’s the beginning of a return to life in memory, as ‘time’ validates its meaning in death. The love scene could be a souvenir, fantasy, secret or even a mistake she keeps to herself. It’s perhaps a reason why she sacrifices herself to take care of the General until the end.
PC: As much as your film is a philosophical treatise, it can also read as a political fable. Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn ran a military dictatorship from 1963-73 until protests forced him out. Your narrative possibly echoes this as it is set in that period. But instead of detailing the numerous military coups that afflict Thailand’s history, did you instead want to show the temporary nature of power?
JN: It is true that the time periods in the movie can be compared to real people or events in Thai political history. But for me, the same stories happen over and over again. Whether in Thailand or other countries. That’s why I choose not to explain the behind-the-scenes of Thai politics. So “temporary nature” is not only applied to power but also to all things.
PC: There are many lovely moments of nature that we see in the film such as the harvesting of mountain honey. Can you tell us about the background to some of those scenes? My memorable scene is when a flying bird poops on the ground and a plant later grows…
JN: Nature is a character in Anatomy of Time. It has own language, experiences, and consciousness. It tells Maem where she came from and what she should do on the road ahead. It’s a tool to access the truth for her. The origin of the tree, the death of a male bee after mating with a queen bee, life in the nursing home. All these metaphors represent the dotted lines that make up the big picture of what the characters wonder about.
PC: Can you tell us a little more about the elderly actors? Were their nude scenes planned in the early script or did this evolve naturally? The elder actress nudity was especially special as it was such a tender, fragile moment…
JN: Yes, it was in the original script. We were searching for actors to play this role for a long time. Some people hesitated to play that particular scene. We were lucky to have Sorabodi and Thaveerat on board with us. Thaveerat was a former fashion model. She is a perfect fit to the role as now she’s also taking care of her old husband, who’s a famous writer. The young lovers, Prapamonton and Wanlop, are also exceptional talents. They are fearless and very committed to the project.
PC: The technical credits for the film are superb. Please tell us about the cinematographer. Also about the hunt for locations. Many sets such as the clock shop and the General’s bedroom have wonderful detail and resonance.
JN: The beautiful set was designed by a friend of mine, Sarawut Karwnamyen and photographed by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, who is also a film director (Manta Ray, 2018). The story of the old Maem was filmed in my mother’s house within two months after my father passed away. Many props were used in real life and played an important role in a make-believe for actors. While the story of young Maem was an imaginary image of how the two found love, we tried to design those scenes to be bright, vibrant, and ideal space for young lovers.
PC: Can you please mention some of your film director influences? For example, I can almost imagine parts of your film as The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011) minus the monologue. But I’ve been told that one of your film’s scenes is actually a homage to a film classic.
JN: And of course, Terence Malick is one of my favourites. But as for Anatomy of Time, I think my film shares the same tendency as modern philosophy; be it that of Heidegger or Wittgenstein. Paying homage that you mentioned is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). It’s how I constructed the love scene on the beach. In Bergman’s film it was the monologue of the nurse telling a secret that she had a sexual affair with a stranger on the beach. That forced her to have an abortion and later, unable to have children with her husband. So I visualized that monologue into a scene.
PC: Do you actually worry that the viewer will understand your film? Even if they don’t, what would be the small idea that you would want to leave them with?
JN: I think the best way to embrace the film is the same way we embrace life. My job as a director is done. Now Anatomy of Time belongs to the audience. So, I would never worry.
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Interviewer’s Bio: Philip Cheah is a film critic and is the editor of BigO, Singapore's only independent pop culture publication. He is currently program consultant for the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (Indonesia), Hanoi Int’l Film Festival (Vietnam), Jaffna International Film Festival (Sri Lanka), Asiaticamediale (Italy), El - Gouna International Film Festival (Egypt) and Shanghai International Film Festival (China). He is Joint President of NETPAC, the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema. He co-founded the South-east Asian Film Festival and is Patron of the SEA (South-east Asia) Screen Academy in Makassar, Indonesia. He is co-director of the Asia Pacific Screen Lab, Australia and Spiritual Advisor to the Bakunawa Young Cinema Film Festival, Philippines. He is co-editor of the books, Garin Nugroho: And the Moon Dances; Noel Vera: Critic After Dark and Ngo Phuong Lan: Modernity and Nationality in Vietnamese Cinema.