By Dan Koh
(1,715 words, 15-minute read)
At this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), the two films from Southeast Asia are documentaries, or hybrid-documentaries—just like last year’s three, curiously. Despite the glaring gaps that remain in the funding, distribution, marketing, and audience reception of our internationally overlooked non-fiction, plus their increased local censorship (at least 12 docus have been banned in Singapore alone since 2004), the fact-based form quietly persists across SEA. Is this attributable to the “rapid [regional] changes [that] have led to a greater urge to preserve the past and present, to document what is being gained and lost and to reflect on the transformations”, as has been speculated? Or is the form simply more affordable and/or practical to produce, generally speaking; the ideal home for urgent, timely expressions?
Curated by the Asian Film Archive, SIFA 2018’s Singular Screens—referencing the vague theme of “resistance” and “the individual”, and, to me, the downsizing of SIFA’s film section to one small screen—features Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s over-romanticised but magically, mostly re-enacted Die Tomorrow (2017; Thailand), and Midi Z’s surprisingly, artlessly engaging, if glancing and timid, 14 Apples (2018; Taiwan-Myanmar). In their slenderness, this pair of true-to-life records—respectively 75 minutes on the blissfully ignorant passage of time to death, and 84 on Buddhism and the globalised countryside—unexpectedly expand the emergent SEA docu form.
“Mayflies have the shortest lifespan on Earth,” Die Tomorrow‘s opening intertitle informs us in Thai-glish, “…[t]hey also called as ‘one-day insects’”. Like the delicate, ephemeral creatures, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s hybrid-docu alights on shimmering pools of stories before gently expiring. For six years, the 34-year-old writer-director collected news articles on death, attended many friends’ unexpected funerals, and after his mother suddenly told him of where their house’s land deed is kept, crafted this film essay “from a personal memoir”.
Die Tomorrow‘s six main threads circle primarily around the young, female experience of random death—even when a spurned male lover commits suicide, we bear witness to his ex-girlfriend’s ambiguously self-absolving role. From student friendships and actor colleagiality sundered by car accidents, to a father-daughter bond in the claws of old age, these filmlets re-enact relationships, unknowingly at death’s door, each through a long take of one last conversation. All the while, a helpful counter tallies up the real world’s two deaths per second: 8,442 people have died by the end, and the credits haven’t even rolled.
Most deaths’ everyday, unspeakably senseless nature is heart-renderingly conveyed in the middle segment between unnamed lovers. In a converted, light-filled bedroom, she is fatalistically awaiting a heart transplant; he is soon visiting the US on a doomed flight. The potential melodrama is elegantly skirted by a protracted grooming session of his nails and heels; amidst the casual talk of her impending death, she lovingly badgers him to use foot cream and to find a new girlfriend after she’s gone. He leaves, she cries, clouds bloom.
Conceptually arresting is the sophomore sequence, a rooftop conversation between a New York-returning sister, Ann, and her younger brother in Bangkok. We are first introduced to a silent montage of photographs of travel, family, friends, and a grumpy puppy, and because the death-informing intertitle is held off till the end, a sense of life’s mystery and possibilities remains, till we are left to put together the shattered pieces. Significantly, Ann notices, “This [old] neighbourhood didn’t change at all.” To which her sibling deadpans, “It will never change. Thailand doesn’t give a shit.”
Even in seeking to unsentimentally “contemplate death slowly” and show “how we live today and now”, Die Tomorrow is slightly remiss in avoiding knottier aspects of death. With Theravāda Buddhism’s fluid conception of death and rebirth co-existing with capital punishment, serious political violence, and the ongoing separatist insurgency in the South, dying in Thailand—or even everyday Bangkok—presumably cannot simply be as sepia-toned, un-momentous, and apolitical as it is mostly re-represented here. Further, Thamrongrattanarit’s most engaging interviewee, a hard-of-hearing, centenarian widower who has also lost his son, eagerly yearns for death, but has to celebrate his 104th birthday. As the shadow of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death looms, one wonders if euthanasia, or other forms of a good death, simply cannot be considered on screen.
As one of the few SEA directors who successfully transition between the commercial and arthouse circuits, Thamrongrattanarit—whose studio film Heart Attack (2015) swept the Thai Oscars—has held over some aesthetic that may not serve independent features as well. While his all-star cast, a reunion of sorts from his previous films, seamlessly switch their acting styles here, the piano near-muzak by Tongta Jitdee and Pokpong Jitdee is effectively, emotionally heavy-handed. Cinematographer Niramon Ross’s [Countdown (2012), Shutter (2004)] predominantly squarish, Instagram-recalling frames feel outdated and forced after a while, though he excels in oscillating between gliding movements during last encounters and complete stillness in their aftermath. After Ann departs, for instance, we remain stuck with her brother on the rooftop, as the wind moves the hanging laundry and clouds. “Her death is a turning point in my life,” we hear the apparently real-life brother say in an off-screen interview. “[Now] I keep telling people around me I love them.”
I’m glad Midi Z has followed up his breakout drama, the plodding then ridiculously overblown The Road to Mandalay (2016), by subtly continuing his burgeoning non-fiction exploration. In 14 Apples, the Myanmar-born writer-director—who studied in Taiwan, where he is now based as a citizen—transports us to another remote rurality: Aungda village, Magway Region, in central Myanmar, more agriculture-based than the jade township of Hpakant in northernmost Myanmar, the setting of his companion docus City of Jade (2016) and Jade Miners (2015). At the outset, this docu’s subject, Shin-hong (Z’s real-life “good friend”, a businessman who has acted and produced for Z, though their relation is not made clear within, and they never interact), is suffering from insomnia and other unstated issues. So, in an almost-unbelievable mix of superstition and Buddhism, his mother’s fortune teller advises him to take 14 apples to a temple there—Shin-hong shall be a monk for 14 days, and possibly be cured.
This tidy syncretism and symbolism—two religious weeks, with a dozen and two forbidden fruits (of knowledge and immortality)—leads Shin-hong to journey from the noise of the city, where in big boss-like sunglasses, he tries to force the stall seller of Thai, Chinese, and American apples to also sell him her knife (he doesn’t like apple peels, so feeds them to a child beggar); to the countryside’s stark nature, where he is quickly embraced by the villagers as a fount of worldly wisdom.
Z’s on-the-fly documentation, with a solo, basic set-up of an SLR camera and shotgun microphone, results in some remarkable scenes of rural kindness, and Buddhism’s hold. When Shin-hong’s SUV gets stuck in a dried-up riverbed on the way to Aungda, Z simply disembarks and captures, in return for Shin-hong’s biscuit treats, the panorama of village boys laying straw to pave the way. In a cloud of rising dust, they watch his vehicle pull away, then return to their endless days. This sequence’s ordinary marvel augurs Shin-hong’s initiation ceremony. Highlighted in an extended, unbroken shot, seemingly the whole village turns out to lay cloth at his feet, as he walks with eyes closed, receiving their overflowing alms of food and money. Where the average daily household income is US$3, their piousness impresses and astounds.
Simultaneously, Z’s ready, one-camera intimacy (we even hear his breathing and sniffles) stifles his storytelling in parts. Despite the concluding images of respite, it’s deeply unclear whether Shin-hong’s insomnia lifts—it doesn’t, as Z only makes certain in the press notes. More importantly, Shin-hong’s ascendancy to village guru comes across as arbitrary, or due to the villagers’ blind admiration of city slickers, when it was actually because (unseen, unheard) the resident abbot left for a trip.
This opaqueness (especially in Shin-hong’s cipher of a character) is cut through belatedly, and bluntly, when Z’s primary interest in Myanmar’s transient workers surfaces. Only in its second half do we observe Shin-hong advising two young female residents, who, like others, are migrating (probably illegally) to labour in China. Despite hearing tales of fraudulent smugglers, border cops shooting at migrants, unfair dismissals, and how “the Chinese order people [around] with their feet…We’ll just have to put up with it”, the duo haven’t been informed of their daily working hours, overtime rates, or even how they’re travelling there. While Z has exposed similar labour-right abuses and explored the pain of displacement in fiction like Poor Folk (2012) and Ice Poison (2014), Shin-hong’s direct intervention here is arguably the most effective recourse, though the 12-minute sequence is first painfully lively, then just repetitive.
Too little, too late as well are Z’s observations on modern religion. In the country of Ashin Wirathu, the influential monk inciting anti-Rohingya violence, and a reticent Aung San Suu Kyi on the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, Z’s portrayal of lottery-buying monks who target certain Buddhist festivals for larger donations (“…every monk has to spend. Monks are just like ordinary people,” one argues) feels lightweight and of no moment. So some monks are mercenary; is there nothing else going on there?
To be fair, as short feature docus, both 14 Apples and Die Tomorrow still say a lot—even if not directly about pressing politics. For despite their continuing presence at SIFA, this seemingly, increasingly fact-based SEA impulse or trend isn’t readily borne out on the international film-festival circuit. Even after Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fiction Uncle Boonmee… (2010) broke the glass ceiling with its Cannes Palme d’Or win, only three of the over 20 SEA feature films that have since premiered at the Oscars of arthouse film festivals (if you will) and its parallel sections, were non-fiction. All three, by the Cambodian-French Rithy Panh—Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2011), The Missing Picture (2013), and Exile (2016)—revolved around the Khmer Rouge regime. To avoid catering to the “Western market[‘s]” appetite for films “about poverty, about war, about human-rights-violations”, as Filipino film academic Jag Garcia puts it, shouldn’t more SEA docus also be writ revealingly small? Writ like a friend’s diversionary, enriching path to a kind of rural disillusionment; like six understatedly re-imagined headline deaths, which inadvertently spur open expressions of love.
Mayflies may die after a day, but first they dance around each other, even if they go unnoticed. Then they propagate, by the hundreds; by the thousands.
Special thanks to Thong Kay Wee.
Selected Further Reading
“’Die Tomorrow’: Film Review | Filmart 2018” by Jordan Mintzer (Hollywood Reporter)
“’Die Tomorrow’: Berlin Review” by Ben Croll (ScreenDaily)
“Conversation with Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit: ‘I don’t think death is serious’” by Asian Shadows (Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art)
“For the days that remain” by Kong Rithdee (Bangkok Post)
“Reflections on death … and life” by Parinyaporn Pajee (The Nation)
“What We Talk about When We Talk about Death” by Carolina Iacucci (Berlinale Talents)
“Thai Film Die Tomorrow, a Movie about Death, Is a Meditation on Life and What It Means to Be Alive” by Misa Shikuma (International Examiner)
“Berlin 2018: Die Tomorrow review” by Patrick Gamble (CineVue)
“Berlinale Blog 2018 #3: Die Tomorrow – Forum” by Andrew Horn (realeyz)
“A temporary monk” and “Conversation with Midi Z: ‘I don’t understand why women are more pious than men’” by Midi Z and Dorothee Wenner (Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art)
“LRM Exclusive Interview With Director Midi Z Of 14 Apples” by Jenny Karakaya (Latino Review Media)
“14 Apples and 14 Days as a Burmese Monk” by Yun-hua Chen (Goethe-Institut China)
“Midi Z: ‘A Film Is Not Just a Film—It Can Be Everything’” by Tin Htet Paing (The Irrawaddy)
“’Pieces-de-Resistance’ – Putting together 13 films for ‘Singular Screens’” by Sindie (SINdie)
14 Apples《十四顆蘋果》(2018) is directed by Midi Z, who is also one of the documentary’s producers, cinematographers, editors, scriptwriters, and Burmese translators. World-premiering at the International Forum of New Cinema section of Berlinale 2018, the film screened online in Germany on Festival Scope, is in competition at Serbia’s Beldocs International Documentary Film Festival 2018 (7–14 May), and screens at the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art, Freer|Sackler, in Washington, D.C., on 10 June 2018. 14 Apples opens in cinemas in France on 16 May 2018.
After opening in limited release at SF Cinemas across Thailand on 23 November 2017 and Bangkok’s House RCA on 7 December 2017, Die Tomorrow (2017) premiered at the Berlinale’s Forum 2018, competed at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018, and played at the 2018 Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Global Vision section. Directed, written, and co-edited by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Die Tomorrow won the Best Supporting Actress awards at the 2018 Bangkok Critics Assembly Awards, Starpics Awards, and Thai Film Director Association Awards. It plays at the D’A Film Festival Barcelona from 2–6 May 2018.
Both 14 Apples and Die Tomorrow were part of SIFA 2018’s Singular Screens film programme, curated by the Asian Film Archive, at The Arts House’s Screening Room. 14 Apples screened on 1 May, at 4pm; and Die Tomorrow on 30 April, 7.30pm, and 1 May, 7pm. All showings were sold out. This review is based on screeners.
Guest Contributor Dan Koh is an independent writer and film producer. The author of Jurong, My Love (The Substation, 2017), he produced Yeo Siew Hua’s experimental music documentary, The Obs: A Singapore Story (2015), associate-produced plus script-consulted Yeo’s dreamy thriller A Land Imagined (slated 2018), and associate-produced the Asian Film Archive’s Singapore Shorts Vol. 2 DVD (2008). Dan is currently co-producing plus script-consulting Yeo’s feature Stranger Eyes (slated 2020), producing and writing Lei Yuan Bin’s observational documentary (slated 2019), and scripting plus line-producing a video-art installation for the Ateliers de Rennes Biennale 2018.