Review: Anatomy of Time
by David Katz
- VENICE 2021: Time is the proverbial flat circle in this woozy drama from Thai filmmaker Jakrawal Nilthamrong
A crucial location in Anatomy of Time [+see also:
film profile] is an old-fashioned clock shop, run by the lead character’s father, and showcasing dozens of dainty, artisanal wooden clocks across its walls. You’d expect the establishment’s proprietor to be a dab hand at mending and rejigging all of his merchandise: opening the time pieces up and gazing at their innards with the know-how of a medical surgeon over an anaesthetised patient – a literal “anatomy of time”. But Thai artist and filmmaker Jakrawal Nilthamrong, in his second feature, deigns to manipulate this “time”: the writer-director wants to bend it back occasionally, and create perpendicular and parallel timelines of events that fork off. Yet of course, in the accepted, empirical notion of time, it barrels forward without our intervention, one second after another, into an indefinite horizon of the future. There is no going back. Anatomy of Time was one of the last films to premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, in the competitive Orizzonti section.
This contradiction sets the stage for several other unresolved schisms in this work. For one, whilst we can doff our cap to the formal technique on display, and how Nilthamrong keeps our attention fairly rapt through this long and sometimes narratively mysterious work, we have to acknowledge the pseudo-profundity of the notion of an “anatomy of time” – a statement opaque enough that it can drift into a kind of meaninglessness. Actually, what Nilthamrong is up to with the forking narrative paths in his film isn’t so different from numerous other works that have non-linear structures, taking on Godard’s much-quoted line that a story should have a beginning, middle and end – but not necessarily in that order. The sense that Anatomy of Time is aiming to show us something unprecedented is a bit hubristic.
The story – loping through timelines, digressions and off-kilter reference points – will seem familiar to viewers who’ve followed Thai cinema across the festival circuit over recent decades, from filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong. It tracks the fortunes of the troubled but steadfast Meam across several decades, played as a young girl by Prapamonton Eiamchan and in old age by Thaveeratana Leelanuja. The other primary character, whose name is not specified in the film, is her paramour, a military officer (Wanlop Rungkumjad), who in the movie’s later timeline is a retired, disgraced general (Sorabodee Changsiri). He is verbally abused by both bystanders on the street and a nurse entrusted with his care. We come to pity him but can also understand him as a scapegoat for the military’s generations-long chokehold on Thai life – its citizenry can’t help but direct their anger at something.
Unlike some of its neighbouring countries that fell under the sway of Marxist-Leninist thinking, religion – specifically Buddhism – still has an enormous influence in Thailand, and this is reflected in the nation’s filmmakers, even in their nonconformist ways. So Nilthamrong is playing with time, see-sawing it back and forth with his characters hanging on for dear life, but seems lost in his own experiment, instead of achieving something masterful and fully integrated. Inverting a typical rule for some films, the technique and pacing are impeccable, but its ideas and sense of depth don’t convince quite as well, seeming less profound the more you sit with them. Especially on the subject of Thailand’s periods of martial law, it can’t affect us more than the mere fear we have seeing those imposing camo uniforms on screen.
Anatomy of Time is a production between Thailand, France, the Netherlands and Singapore. The production outfits involved are Diversion, Damned Films, Sluizer Film Productions, M’Go Films and Mit Out Sound Films.
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