In Tash Aw’s column Freeze Frame, he explores how his favorite masterpieces of Asian cinema have influenced him.
I was born in a region fractured by civil uprising, in a time of violent protest and revolution that would color almost all of my childhood and teenage years. Throughout the seventies, the struggles in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, played out on an international stage, dominating the news. Away from the headlines, smaller struggles would flare up in Jakarta or Bangkok or Manila, and we got used to seeing news images of students taking to the streets, or of burning cars in front of buildings with barbed wire. In the relative calm of Kuala Lumpur, these reports hovered constantly in the air but were largely absent from conversations at home. The events took place in the capitals of our closest neighbors, in cities that looked like ours, filled with people we knew. The papers would arrive, my parents would flick through them without comment, and I would read them myself later, trying to figure out what I could. At the earliest age, I understood that instability was so much a part of our lives that it wasn’t worth talking about.
It was not so much that we had become inured to trauma by our own experience of poverty and deprivation—a theory frequently offered by people of my parents’ generation. As an adolescent I began to form my own critique of Southeast Asian politics, railing against our reticence to address the catastrophic events in the region (“You young people, you don’t know what real suffering is, talk to us about revolution once you know what it means to starve”). We were trying to deny the truth: that our own peace was fragile, too newly attained for us to feel that it would stay for long. Malaysia was still recovering from the killing of hundreds of its ethnic Chinese citizens in the riots of May 1969—a subject rarely discussed in public or in private. In Indonesia, Suharto’s New Order was struggling to maintain a semblance of normality after the massacre of an estimated one million people during the coup of September 1965. It felt as though violence on a national scale could erupt at any moment. On my way to class one day (I was still in primary school), I saw on the front pages of the newspapers Benigno Aquino’s body on the tarmac at Manila airport following his assassination. In the way that we, a traditional Asian family, were superstitious about talking about death for fear of inviting it into our homes, we were afraid of dissecting the turbulence elsewhere in the region, in case it somehow pushed through the cracks and filled our own lives again.
But when I recall this period—from the mid-’70s to the fall of Marcos in 1986—what I remember is not the danger but the sense of optimism. We should have been paralyzed by fear, but instead our days were filled with a glorious normality. We went to school, we saw Star Wars at the cinema, we discovered burgers and french fries. Malaysia, like many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, was just at the start of two decades of rapid economic growth, and perhaps it was precisely this deliberate silence about the trauma, both recent and continuing, that allowed us to enjoy that moment. Look away from suffering long enough and soon it’ll cease to exist; we can make anything disappear if we simply deny its existence. Or perhaps our memories are selective. When we creep back into the recesses of our political memory to try and fashion a narrative from it, what are we trying to do? We wanted so much to be middle class, and for violence and oppression to belong to our past rather than our present, that we retained only what was pleasurable.
Anocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature-length film, By the Time it Gets Dark, is ostensibly a story about the brutal crackdown on student demonstrators at Thammasat University in Bangkok in 1976—the year of the filmmaker’s birth, forty years before the film was released—but its unpredictable, twisting narrative doubles back on itself in such strange ways that it becomes an interrogation of collective memory, a questioning of the role of history in contemporary Southeast Asia. The premise appears simple: two women arrive at an isolated house in the countryside, relieved to be there yet not entirely at ease with each other as they admire the spectacular views of the dry northern landscape. They have the clothes and demeanor of Bangkok dwellers, and we soon learn that they are there to tell the story of the Thammasat University killings. Taew, the older woman, was a leading figure in the student protests of the time, and has since become a celebrated writer. Ann, the younger, is a filmmaker, and spends the following days organizing oddly formal interviews with Taew, recorded on her camera, trying to piece together enough information to write a screenplay for a film based on the killings.
Taew’s responses to Ann’s questions are factual at best, and sometimes even stilted. In remembering the events of 1976, she never rejoices in the emotional highs of student activism and resists a dramatic rendition of the horrors she witnessed. Injustice, brutality, the confusion of opposing forces—everything is delivered matter-of-factly and so stripped of intimacy that we start to wonder how Ann is ever going to fashion a movie out of such dry, event-based information. And yet we know that she will go on to do so, for spliced between their interviews are scenes from the young Taew’s student days, sometimes woven into her interviews to form a dramatization of her recollections, other times offered frankly as takes from Ann’s film, with cameramen and stylists entering the frame. Their appearance feels like deliberate trespass. How far do we have to intrude into someone’s uncooperative memory in order to re-create history?
We keep thinking that sooner or later, Ann will make a breakthrough, that she and Taew will form some sort of intimacy, but if anything, they begin to pull further apart. At a rural café—the kind of part-hipster, part-authentic country establishment that one comes across often in Thailand—they slip into an awkward conversation with the young woman who works there. That young woman’s line of questioning is direct and guileless. Why are you writing a film on Taew’s life? It’s not your life, it’s hers, she should be writing it. Still, Ann persists in her project, and one evening Taew herself interrogates Ann on her motives: Why does Ann want to make the film?
As I listened to their exchange I felt as though I’d heard Taew’s questions many times before, perhaps paraphrased but essentially meaning this: Why bother dredging the past, when you have so much to live for in the present? Why turn your gaze backward to shadowy pain when you could be peering into a bold, brassy future? It is a conversation that much of Asia continues to have with itself—a tussle between generations old and new, if we want to be reductive about it; a struggle to define a modern identity that isn’t yet sure how to process the trauma that has pockmarked its recent history.
Ann’s response is that she simply wants to tell a meaningful story. Her own life has been uneventful and inconsequential compared to Taew’s. She is young and inhabits a self-regarding world of filmmakers, actors, and celebrities—a world to which we are transported through a separate storyline that follows the fate of Peter, a glamorous Bangkok actor whose days are filled with a troubling insouciance. How can life be so easy for anyone, even someone as gorgeous and charming as he is? He is offered a role in an indie film that sounds as if it could be Ann’s project, though we never find out for certain. Elsewhere, the girl at the country café reappears as a waitress in a Bangkok restaurant and a cleaner at Peter’s luxury condo block. We see Ann and Taew arriving at the house in the northern countryside—only now they look like movie stars, with movie-star hair and makeup. All these lives intersect without truly connecting, the stories layered on top of each other, repeating in ways we can’t fully comprehend.
I first watched the film with Thai and Malaysian friends who thought it was about Buddhist destiny. We are only living out the life that was written for us, full of pockets of pain trapped in our pasts. Watching the film again, I felt it managed to be at once accepting and questioning in its notions of fate, challenging the way we have been taught to accept suffering as a necessary element of our histories, both national and personal. Taking a break from the difficult interviews with Taew, Ann goes on a solitary walk through the forest, where she sees a mysterious young girl dressed in tiger-suit pajamas. She desperately pursues this vision of innocence but eventually loses sight of the child and collapses in tears without knowing exactly why. Maybe it is because the story of our countries’ trauma is entwined in that of our own intimate conflicts. We can try to consign one part of that pain to the dim margins of history, but what do we do with the hurt that lingers on?
Tash Aw’s most recent novel is We, the Survivors.