Time is not on anybody's side

Making its Asian premiere in Busan, Jakrawal Nilthamrong's new film is a study of old age and the unstoppable march of time

A scene from Anatomy Of Time.

There's the anatomy -- the bone and the flesh, supple or flaccid. Then there's time, the cruellest judge of all. In Jakrawal Nilthamrong's Anatomy Of Time (the Thai title is simpler, Wela), the first sound we hear is a tick-tock metronome like the soundtrack of the cosmos as we watch an old lady gently tending to her tubed and bedbound husband. Time will be folded back. The old woman will become young and her dying husband will appear as a spirited, dashing military captain fighting communist insurgents for the good of the nation.

Premiered in Venice last month and now showing at the Busan International Film Festival, Anatomy Of Time acquires a deeper meaning once we learn that the story is drawn from the memory of the filmmaker's parents. Jakrawal, a professor at Thammasat University and staunch experimental director, has made an intimate and personal film about old age, dying, love (either born out of passion or habit), the finite nature of the human body, and that awkward moment between birth and death.

At the same time, the film can be read in the larger political context, with its glaring references to nationhood, the military, and the "fascist's lapdog" curse spat at one of the characters. Beyond that, Jakrawal aspires to discuss even larger concepts -- nature, religion, impermanence, nirvana. This tension between the personal and something more all-encompassing gives the film its constant, haunting vibrations.

Anatomy Of Time is also Jakrawal's most narrative-driven film. It begins with sickness and death and ends with a kind of climactic joy that seems almost shocking (with a profoundly sad aftertaste, if that makes sense). The story is bisected into two timelines, switching back and forth between the time when Maem (Prapamonton Eiamchan) is a beautiful young woman in a provincial town being courted by a cocky military captain (Wanlop Rungkumjad), and when she's a silver-haired lady whose days are spent caring for her terminally ill husband (the older Maem is played, with calm elegance and resignation, by Thaveeratana Leelanuja). The two parts are treated almost independently of each other -- as a duality, and not as flashback or flash-forward. It's up to the audience to make the mental connection and construct the film as a whole.

Jakrawal's strength as a filmmaker usually comes from his formalist experimentation -- the elliptical shape that make up his films, both long and short, as well as his video art pieces, and investigation into the deceptive linearity of narrative. But Anatomy Of Time, despite its conceptual heft and time shift, feels most natural and thus most emotional when it lets conventional elements such as acting, character, visual and sentiment take up the space on screen.

The section in which the elderly Maem scrupulously cares for her dying husband is at once touching and harrowing in its honesty. It's what gives the film its heart -- and in fact, its social relevance.

Critics will evoke Michael Hanake's Amour (personally, I'm reminded of Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, an autobiographical novel that made me feel like I was chewing pebbles in my mouth non-stop, even in my sleep). Anatomy Of Time has something of that, but I think it's Thaveeratana's presence and Jakrawal's measured distance between himself and his story that makes this part shine -- not with the bright light of nirvana, but with the mournful glow of a Thai funeral parlour. It feels warm and real.

Conceptually, this section is a contrast to the more theatrical mirror image when we follow Maem as a young woman torn between two men, the slick military captain with a connection in high places and a simple village man. Here, the distance between the director and the story, and between fiction and biography, is wider -- this part almost feels adrift, unmoored from time, perhaps intentionally. It also contains a long discussion between Maem and her clockmaker-father about life, death, religion, karma. All of it is profound stuff that underpins the essence of the film, but it feels a little cold and impersonal as well.

As all good artists know, a family history is also history. Anatomy Of Time moves the personal within the historical, and it lets the unstoppable march of time take its course right to the very end.

  • Anatomy Of Time
  • Directed by Jakrawal Nilthamrong