Meta Fiction is for Cynics

in 13rd Pusan International Film Festival

by Hynek Pallas

The “New Currents”‘ section at the Pusan film festival of 2008 presented two films with very different takes on meta fiction in film and theatre: the Thai drama A Moment in June by O. Nathapon, and the Iranian movie Empty Chair by Saman Estereki.        

O. Nathapon’s film is set in Bangkok in 1972 and 1999 and follows the love affairs and break-up of three, or rather two, couples. First, the homosexual lovers Pakorn and Phone break up in the film’s powerful opening, where the photographer Phone is leaving Pakorn at a train-station. The second couple is Arunya and Krung — Pakorn’s father — an older couple that meet again after thirty years apart. The third couple are actors in a play set in Bangkok 1972 that Pakorn is rehearsing. We soon learn that they are a younger version of Arunya and Krung and that the play is an adaptation of a book by Arunya. Pakorn, however, is unaware of her former relationship to his father.                      

O. Nathapon uses the rehearsals of the play to act out the frustration and feelings that Pakorn feels for being left by Phone — a relationship we see mainly through flashbacks — and to tell us the way that Arunya and Krung separated thirty years before; or at least as seen from her point of view.                      

Aesthetically A Moment in June is strongly indebted to Wong Kar-wai, both in the photography and the graphic design, but the film definitely carries its own weight because of how cleverly and beautifully the director turns the theatre decor into film with smooth transitions — the camera dances around the stage decor and suddenly we are in an alley in Bangkok 1972. The director also uses platforms, boats and trains extensively as symbols and to connect to the film’s theme of departures through space and time.           

Saman Estereki’s Empty Chair, on the other hand, is a more typical meta film, about a series of films being made within a film. Empty Chair starts with an episode — complete with Felliniesque carnival scenes — about a couple who give birth to a blind, deaf and mute baby, and are forced by doctors to decide if the baby shall live or die. Then someone yells “cut!” and we are in the life of a female director. On her way home from the set she causes a hit-and-run-accident and kills a man on the road. Consumed by guilt she finds his surprisingly relieved wife, who hated her husband because he beat her. Another “cut” and we are in the making of the film about the car-accident, where a male director unintentionally kills an extra while shooting the scene. On it goes, through a series of confusing films being made about each other, until we finally end up in an animated episode about the directors who are supposedly making all these films.                      

By this point all of the elements of existential drama and emotion that where so strong and thoughtful in the first part of Empty Chair are gone as each director claims them for his own and further removes them from the audience into an unreachable, endless sequence of Chinese boxes. In the end the characters and their moral drama are seemingly of no-one’s imagination.                      

While watching A Moment in June it struck me how much some meta films are for those of us who sometimes cannot bear a heavy use of “sturm und drang” images, and how these films trick us cynics in order to capture both our hearts and our minds. By making his love stories intrinsically intertwined, and slipping through time and space, via the stage actors’ discussions, or the transitions between the different couple’s dialogues, O. Nathapon makes us think about how similar and universal these feelings are; whether between a gay couple in 1999 or a heterosexual couple in 1972, between two actors playing it out on stage, or the real-life lovers 30 years later — and then feel them even stronger.         

Thus, the two films show the difference between using metafiction to say something about emotions, their function and the universal aspect of them — and how this can be created in the cinema or on the stage via an “alienation effect” within the film; and on the other hand to lose oneself in the meta aspects of making a film — or a series of films — within a film. Empty Chair unfortunately shows that this doesn’t necessarily expand our understanding of an existential dilemma or an emotion — the director never gives us the chance to go back in order to rethink or re-feel — but that the technique can remove us further from the questions and the emotions. Here the “alienation effect” goes too far, and the chair is indeed empty at the end.