Anatomy of Time: an unhurried and ambiguous meditation on one woman’s life

Jakrawal Nilthamrong touches on religion, Thai politics and the circular concept of time for a sophomore feature inspired by the memories of his parents.

16 February 2022

By Matt Turner

Anatomy of Time (2021)Anatomy of Time (2021) © Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 International Film Festival Rotterdam. 

In the first scene of Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Anatomy of Time, a frail figure is seen lying lifelessly in a hospital bed. As a woman attends to the man, a clock ticks loudly in the background. She applies an oxygen mask but to no avail; life slips away from him like a gentle gust of wind. She then pulls out a switchblade and makes an incision in his thigh with medical precision, extracting a bullet. Sounds of gunfire start to fade in, and, with a sharp cut, the film hurtles backwards in time.

By this point, a viewer knows nothing about these two people and their backstories, nor the significance of anything they have just witnessed. And yet the scene is still captivating, an elegant piece of wordless storytelling that establishes the characters and setting, but above all, conveys the film’s beguiling atmosphere.

It was inspired by the memories of Jakrawal’s parents, and this opening sequence was filmed in his mother’s home. Using characters as stand-ins for a generation of Thai people that grew up during the conflicts between the Thai government and members of the Communist Party that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, whilst also making inferences about the country’s current political climate, it tells a story split across two periods of time. 

As Anatomy of Time looks to the past, we meet ‘young Maem’ (Prapamonton Eiamchan), the daughter of a watchmaker, who falls in love with The General (Wanlop Rungkumjad), a charming army soldier. In the present, we find the ‘old Maem’ (Thaveeratana Leelanuja) caring diligently for the elderly General, now her husband – a man in disgrace as a result of his actions during the war.

The film features arresting imagery from cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng (the director of Manta Ray, 2019) and fluid, elliptical editing by Lee Chatametikool (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular editing partner) and Katharina Wartena. Overall, Anatomy of Time takes an unhurried approach – slow in pacing and light on plot. Here, time moves languidly, arguably to a fault. And yet, the best scenes are those that do not advance the narrative at all.

A scene in which Maem and her father discuss the key tenets of Buddhism expresses many of the film’s latent themes (religion, morality, nature, time, memory) in one short exchange. An unexpectedly moving sequence near the film’s close focuses entirely on the non-human rhythms of the rural area where the film is set – birds chatter to each other, trees flutter in the wind. Everything slows to a crawl.

Eventually, we learn that the film’s first scene is less an opening and more of an ending, but also that the order of things just isn’t important. As the old man draws his last breath a chapter is closed, but in this film, time is circular and history doesn’t follow a straight line. 

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