Time and a Word

in 21st Oslo Films from the South Festival

by Philip Cheah

If you live long enough, you will find that sweet love stories start being given oblique experimental makeovers. Stripped of its formalism, that’s what Sivaroj Kongsakul’s Eternity (Tee Rak) is — a tale of a young couple falling in love, followed by sadness when one spouse dies and leaves the other to raise the children.

The sweetness is, however, always kept at a distance. The film begins with a long sequence of a man riding his motorcycle through a rural landscape. Shot from different angles as the rider crisscrosses the landscape, the tension is really based on how long the filmmaker can keep this up (it goes on for about 15 minutes if you keep count). But it becomes a curious pleasure in itself, the mystery of the intended destination. However, there is a cultural specificity here. The rider is a ghost who has returned to “walk the footsteps” of his youth. In Thai culture, it is believed that the dead return after three days to the place that they loved.

Once the man enters the house, the empty space conjures up a ghostly presence, with gentle breezes and fluttering fabrics. Then he walks to the river jetty outside his house, and there his past unfolds. His name is Wit and he died three days ago. Soon, the silence of this extended early sequence gives way to the sound of laughter. We see Wit’s future wife, Koi. Wit has brought Koi home to meet his parents and to decide whether she will accept his proposal. There are more sweet memories when we see Wit’s parents also playing in the water, still very much in love. But death constantly lurks in the film.

Just as it presents itself in the ghost rider in the beginning, we sense death also in Wit’s memories of his elderly parents. Later Wit and Koi travel to a temple and then to a graveyard where Koi introduces Wit to her dead ancestors. When Koi asks Wit whether their love will last an eternity, he starts crying and it signals his death and exit from the film’s narrative. We then see a return to the temple. This time it’s his whole family, and we see them crying bitterly as they leave the temple in public buses. Then finally, there is Koi, now a middle-aged woman, raising her two young children.

The film director Sivaroj Kongsakul said: “I wanted the film to be about this memory of my father and our family. The film will be separated into three parts tied together by the concept of ‘death’. The first part is inspired by the Thai belief that the spirit of the dead will return after three days to ‘walk the footsteps’ of the place it cherished. The second part is the recreation of the story my mother always told me when she missed my father. It is about the time when they met and fell in love. The third part is about the daily life of our family in the days following my father’s death when we felt his spirit was still with us. In this film, the three parts will be connected by ‘darkness’ as a metaphor for ‘the death of a loved one’ that will stay with us forever.”

Kongsakul began his career as assistant director for Penek Ratanaruang, Wisit Sasanatieng, and Aditya Assarat on many of their shorts, TV commercials, and pop videos. He also shot Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short Worldly Desires. And the way he has been influenced by them is clear to see — in particular in relation to Assarat’s lyrical formalism.

However, Eternity’s limitation is that its formalism exists almost as a veil for the subject’s lack of depth. Such films normally work when both emotion and technique are in harmony. But what in essence is a sentimental sweet love story doesn’t lend much drama when the veil is lifted. Sometimes, it should be remembered that in the beginning of eternity (sic), there was the word…