Advertising their 35mm camera, the LomoKino website invites potential customers to “go back to the early days of motion picture” while awakening their own “analogue cinematic fantasies”—as Thailand’s reigning auteur, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, has done (except for a digital finale) with his exquisite, haunting “Ashes.” This short work—since its premiere at Cannes last Friday it has been available for free viewing on the MUBI website (http://mubi.com/)—weaves together surrealism and (at least seemingly) ordinary reality, dream and waking political protest and dark prophecy. Thailand’s fate hangs in the balance.
In a rural setting, a scene of tranquility: a man walks his dog down an unpaved path down which, also, a boy—perhaps an earlier version of the man—bicycles, the camera at their backs. With visual wit, the film thus introduces the concept of the backward glance, that is to say, memory. (The staccato presentation of much of the film, shutter to shutter, suggests snapshots of memory.) Closeups of a confined oinking pig nudge memory, that is, a dream, in the direction of particularity and immediacy. Now the man is resting on the ground, the dog close by, and the entire passage, reddish, resembles hand-tinted frames in certain black-and-white silent films: part of our collective memory: the magic of cinema. A contrasting bluish passage of highway traffic cancels much of the memory and the magic.
Signs and posters of protest appear; we catch on these repeated views of the number 112. In the Law of Thailand, Article 112 of the Criminal Code articulates the offense of Lèse majesté: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King . . . shall be punished [with] imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” This prohibition, all the more frightening for remaining largely undefined, has been in effect since 1908; not even the 1932 replacement of Thailand’s absolute monarchy with a constitution, and the series of revised constitutions since, has derailed the prohibition. Since the military coup in 2006, in fact, prosecutions under Article 112 have increased, from a handful a year, by 1500%. The vague language has helped make possible a widened application that has stricken the heart of freedom and assumed the form of a waking political nightmare.
Apichatpong presents this brilliant film as a looking back; the man with the dog, a filmmaker, has turned his attention to drawing buildings from his home town, Khon Kaen, as he remembers them. (This character and Apichatpong share the same home town.) He tells us, “I kept drawing and looking back.” He also tells us we are watching a dream—if you will, a dream of the past. But how can this be? The point of reconciliation, of course, is that the die has been cast on Thailand’s political future, which in fact Apichatpong has imagined, has dreamt, as having already occurred. The finale, an outdoor scene of intense celebration, with spinning wheels of fireworks and other fireworks in the nighttime sky, is more beautiful than one can even imagine. The beauty is devastatingly ironic. In the throes of expiring glitter, ashes descend: by metaphorical extension, the ashes of the celebrants themselves. Into twenty minutes of screen time, a master filmmaker has compressed his monumental concern for the fate of the country he cherishes.
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