A smart way to get a first feature noticed is to make it distinctive; stylise or structure it in a way that will generate a talking point for conversation to surround. 36, from new Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit does precisely this, structuring the story around a piece of neat formalism encapsulated in the title.
Made of entirely static compositions, 36 mimics the format and function of a film camera. thirty six ‘exposures’ of the camera’s roll are divided with numbers and notes like prints in an album. Across thirty six shots that make thirty six varying length, intertitled and neatly separated scenes, characters wander in and out of the motionless frame, conversations are had and heard and time passes. The shutter opens and closes, the perspective changes, and a story in thirty six acts plays out.
Fortunately, Thamrongrattnarit’s scope extends beyond this pure formalism, as a film made entirely of static compositions is hardly new, even given the camera shutter explanation. Blending the experimental mode with a more traditional narrative function, 36 merges its form with its subtext; opening discussions about the camera’s role as a tool as well as emotional aid, photography and memory, the fallibility of digital and analog records, and the fluctuating, often uncontrollable dynamics of human relationships, and exploring these things through both the story and the character’s engagements, and the structure of the film itself.
Over the film’s course, a Location Scout (Sai) and Art Director (Oom) walk around various potential locations for a feature film, under the loose instruction to find ‘a place with a past,’ a directive that serves to describe the film overall. Though drawn together initially through work, they begin to establish a closer relationship, conversing in that gently philosophical, firmly unpretentious style that viewers of fellow long surnamed countryman Apitchapong Weerasethekul (to whom Thamrongrattanarit evidently owes a lot) will be familiar with.
As the two’s interactions become less formal, and the remit of their discourse grows wider (and more overtly flirtatious) we learn that the Sal studied architecture, and that Oom’s background is in vetinary sciences. He shoots film, she favours digital. She shoots frequently and without much thought, he shoots rarely but decisively, with a more overtly artistic intent. He expounds the virtues of looking and not living behind the lense, she counters that the camera immortalises the moment, and that once captured, can be remembered and relived forever. She records landscapes, he captures people.
These dialogues, though loose and wandering, veer from contemplative to flirtatious throughout the film, and bloom with the character’s bond. As the work comes to completion, the two drift apart. Oom, who avoids appearing in photographs as much as possible, exists only in Sal’s memories. When he reappears, its in pictures taken by Sal but lost for a long time through harddrive corruption, a visible reaffirmation of his position as spectre in her subconscious since their parting, distant but omnipresent in the vault of emotional memory. Thamrongrattanarit perfectly emulates both the way professional relationships can drift towards something more personal given the right conditions, but also how similarly people can drift when those same serendipitous conditions disperses.
Starkly minimalist, but offering growing pools of interpretative depth, 36 reveals a debut director with command of mood and tone that is commendably strong. He establishes immediately the kind of somnambulistic tranquility that only South East Asian directors seem able to effortlessly generate, and guides it gently towards something melancholic but not entirely sad. As 36 explores, ultimately, the ephemerality of all things - human experience, physical record, constructed and natural landscape - the viewer is free to decode and experience Sal and Oom’s exploration of these things and themselves, or think about their own understanding of them in their own world. Thirty six shots, but a lifetime of memory.