in 17th Busan International Film Festival

by Pablo Utin

The best film in competition at the New Currents section, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s debut 36 tells the story of Sai, a location scout who goes around with her digital photo camera and takes pictures of buildings that may or may not serve for a future film. Together with Oom, the art director, she goes from place to place; they discuss their lives and create a strong bond. Some years later, Sai discovers that the hard drive where she stored all the photos she took during that time is broken. She tries to save the data on the hard drive and then goes back to all those places again, while memories of the past arise.

But what makes Thamrongrattanarit’s film so unique is its cinematic style. The film is composed, as its title indicates, of 36 scenes. Each scene is shot with a static camera, while the characters are mostly seen in the borders of the frame, with their backs towards us, or far away in a long shot. Mostly, the film focuses on empty rooms, bare spaces or discarded objects. This minimalist approach – a series of small, ordinary and seemingly insignificant moments, with very few characters in them – has led some viewers to describe the film as simple, even too simple. But this is far from the truth.  If there is anything captivating about 36 is actually its deep and moving complexity.

For example, in one of the 36 moments that compose the film, a woman comes to a small store in order to pick up a broken hard drive she left there some months ago to be fixed. In a previous scene, when Sai leaves her own hard drive at the store, the technician owner of the place expresses his concern about people who leave their hard drives to get repaired but never come back to get them; they just leave them in his shop, and he can’t understand why. So when this woman suddenly comes back after so much time to check if her hard drive was repaired, the technician happily informs her that he succeeded in recovering most of the data of the drive. The woman immediately freezes, she is disappointed. The technician understands she doesn’t want her property back. After an awkward exchange, the technician offers to throw the thing away.

What makes this scene so intriguing is that the only thing Thamrongrattanarit’s camera shows us is a shot of an open drawer with about a dozen abandoned hard drives (the technician supposedly opened that drawer before the scene started to get the hard drive that belongs to his customer). An overhead shot of the hard drives all piled up, accompanied by the voices of the characters coming from outside the frame is all we get. This apparently simple shot is actually complex in at least three different ways.

The first complexity comes from the script. We (almost) encounter this woman who left her photos, archives and more to get fixed, rescued, but who didn’t come back to check if the data was recovered. When she comes, she is disappointed that all the things are back and restored, and she doesn’t want them. Why did she go there in the first place? One of the themes of 36 is memory: how our memories influence who we are, how it is possible to retain things and what is the real weight of the things we remember or want to remember. New digital technology lets us document and preserve our lives, our memories, our identities. The computer and the hard drives promise to retain everything, nothing can get lost, but this promise is sometimes broken, and entire memories of entire lives can be easily erased as well. This woman is in a paradoxical tension between wanting to remember and wanting to forget. She comes to get back her memories, but for some reason these are too hard for her to deal with, and even if she feels some desire to get them back, she cannot bring herself to really do it. Do we have to retain everything? What relationships we want to forget? Do we really understand what is the meaning of that endless archive of pictures, texts and memories that have become our digital world? What are its emotional consequences? What psychological burden does it impose? The situation might appear simple, but its meanings add up to a meditation on modernity, human relationships and how we deal with the past. 

The second complexity comes from the cinematic choice of the shot. Instead of focusing on the drama and showing us the reactions of the actors, the director chooses to concentrate on the pile of abandoned hard drives and to leave the events of the script out of frame. We can hear the dialogue and we can imagine what is happening by the suggestive voice acting. The really simple choice for this kind of scene would have been to actually show the woman and the technician. The shot of the full, open drawer is not simple, but fresh and precise. It encourages the viewer to create the scene in her mind, and to think about the relationship between what she is watching and what she is hearing.

And thus the third level of complexity: because this shot of the mountain of hard drives is saying something about the objects that surround us and their importance. This shot is telling the unknown stories of all the costumers who didn’t come to get their archives back. While listening to the “story” of the woman offscreen, we are invited to think about all the things that people want to erase from their lives, to forget or make them disappear. All the experiences stored in those hard drives and all the suffering that made people to want to leave them there. It looks like a cemetery, or corpses after a massacre. It is a shot of abandoned hard drives, but it is filled with feelings, sadness and beauty.

These kinds of complex relationships between human beings and the objects and spaces that surround them are the very essence of 36 and give it a hypnotizing power. Each of the sequences is carefully filled with levels of meaning and emotion.  Thamrongrattanarit manages to create deep emotion from really small moments. This is why even if we can admire virtuoso directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Christopher Nolan or Hitchcock, who use their camera and great budgets to impress and astonish with their amazing abilities, there is always a lot to envy and admire in directors like Thamrongrattanrit, who seemingly without effort, effects or even camera movements can create multifaceted worlds and deep thoughts about life.

36 is constructed like a poem, or a piece of music. The moments add to one another creating a sequential development that keeps increasing in meaning with every new scene. The story, if there is one, is never explained, but assumed. The viewer must take all these bits and pieces and create a whole, imagine what is neither shown nor said, and understand the delicacies of what is on the screen. Each one of the 36 sequences is preceded by a short comment that gives it an extra meaning, something to think about while watching it without narrowing the possibilities of interpretation. Thamrongrattanarit makes some effort to avoid clichés, and even if sometimes the music feels a bit forced for his minimalist style, most of the film avoids falling into banalities. The most vivid example occurs towards the end: the main character is concerned with saving a special photo which we saw she took at the beginning of the film, although we never saw the photo itself. The photo was lost together with the hard drive, and one of the traps for any filmmakers would be how to get away from the need to surrender to the cliché and show the photo at the end in order to provide the desired catharsis. Without revealing Thamrongrattanarit’s intelligent and sensitive solution, it is safe to say that he found a way to close his film creatively, without kitsch and yet with a shot full of contained emotional and philosophical intensity. It is not surprising that Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s beautiful debut went on to win both the FIPRESCI award and the award of the official jury of the 17th International Busan Film festival.

Edited by Jake Wilson