Krabi, 2562 review: Anocha Suwichakornpong and Ben Rivers slip and slide through the Holocene

Images are as slippery as time in this askance meditation on Thai tourism, geology, cinema and more, a collaboration between the directors of By the Time It Gets Dark and Two Years at Sea.

Nick Pinkerton

Krabi, 2562 (2019)

A string of ambiguously connected vignettes, Anocha Suwichakornpong and Ben Rivers’s Krabi, 2562 has a diaphanous flutter and quicksilver evasiveness. It moves freely between documentary and fiction modes; when the camera lingers on mudskippers wriggling on the beach, it might be identifying a neither-nor kindred spirit in these amphibious fish that can breathe in air.

Paradoxes abound. The tone is pacific, though twice on the soundtrack the martial clack of boots becomes audible, a reminder of the military junta controlling the Land of Smiles. The film unfolds according to an uncertain, shuffled chronology. We hear a retired cinema projectionist’s testimony about a woman’s mysterious disappearance, then watch the scene he’s described: earlier scenes now take on the character of a forensic investigation.

The ‘2562’ of the title has a science-fiction ring – in fact, it is last year according to the Buddhist calendar – while in the movie, past and present intermingle. In addition to the evolutionary aberration of the mudskippers, the image of the Neanderthal recurs, as statuary and in a pair of living, breathing primitives who wander through this otherwise contemporary film (the working title was In the Holocene).

The Krabi of the final title is a city on Thailand’s southwest coast, a popular tourist attraction and movie location. That much is explained, though little else is, and getting a handle on where we are moment to moment is almost as tricky as finding images of an authentic, unspoiled Krabi, which is what we see various outsiders trying to do: a visitor from central Thailand (Siraphun Wattanajinda) who claims to be a location scout, among other things; a bevy of tourists; and a European commercial director (filmmaker Oliver Laxe).

Krabi, 2562 (2019)

These might be taken as stand-ins for the film’s directors: Thai-born Suwichakornpong, whose By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) was one of the most consummately excellent, blindsiding works of the 2010s, and the English Rivers (Two Years at Sea, etc). It is their second collaboration, after a short made for the Thailand Biennale (the event is referred to here, accompanied by a black-and-white film excerpt). It is probably a mistake to assume parental traits, but it can be said that Rivers supplies his eye – he shot much of the film in Super 16, working with DP Leung Ming Kai – while the slippery structure shows Suwichakornpong’s fondness for skin-shedding, shape-shifting narratives.

Suwichakornpong’s seeming impatience with the methods of cinematic address available to her is what makes her work worth watching. Where By the Time It Gets Dark is about struggling with different cinematic approaches to grasp historic tragedy – the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, in that case – Krabi, 2562 regards the motion-picture camera sidelong, as a potential agent of despoliation. (Neither film attempts to sustain a single, steady tone.) With different tools, Suwichakornpong and Rivers are exploring an issue that harried Robert Flaherty through his career – the degree to which ‘discovering’ and thereby publicising a little-seen spot invites its destruction.

Tarn is a professional ‘local’, seen conducting business, arranging with a rural beekeeper to bring tourists through, and offering her folklore heritage as part of the authentic experience. Meanwhile, the poplore of the 20th century is fast on the wane – in a crucial scene in an abandoned cinema, the former projectionist discusses round-the-clock screenings in the old days when “cinema was the only form of public entertainment”. A shot of the empty theatre a-flutter with circling bats, however, doesn’t feel like another clichéd commentary on the Death of Cinema. For in a film where Neanderthals still walk the earth, there can be no such thing as extinction, and anything dying must already be in the process of being reborn.

 

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