The act of photography and the role it plays in how people and places are remembered is elegantly examined in “36.” Filmed in just 36 shots and centered on a film location scout whose archival photos are erased, this striking debut by Thai scripter-helmer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit will cast a spell on viewers who click into its languid and quietly simulating rhythms. Co-produced by Thai indie heavyweights Aditya Assarat and Soros Sukhum, and given a limited local release in August, “36” has little commercial potential, but will see lengthy fest exposure after sharing top prize in Busan’s New Currents competition.
Assembled with a simplicity that gives its rich themes time to germinate and then flourish as the minimalist narrative develops, the pic opens with 30-ish Sai (Koramit Vajrasthira) taking photos of a building, and discussing fees and logistics with landlady Mrs. Wilaporn (Sirima Aksornsawang). Accompanying Sai is Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad), an art director she has never met.
Establishing a nice rapport, the soft-spoken and normally camera-shy Oom allows Sai to take a single photo of him, and asks questions about her job. Her response could be substituted for what’s happening in cinema today; she started out shooting film and has now abandoned the format for digital (with each year’s photographs stored on separate portable hard drives).
On assignment to find buildings with a look and atmosphere of the past, Sai and Oom’s mission takes them to the wreckage of a Vietnam war-era “love hotel,” where the Buddhist notion of impermanence becomes part of the conversation.
Just at the point where a lovely romance seems to be forming, the screenplay jumps forward two years. Now working for director Karn (Sivaroj Kongsakul), Sai needs to retrieve images from the day she spent with Oom, only to discover her entire work for that year is not accessible. On the recommendation of roommate Jham (Siriporn Kongma), who has photographic recall of telephone numbers, Sai leaves the damaged hard drive with computer geek Kai (Nottapon Boonprakob) and retraces her steps from the day in question.
Auds in tune with the movie’s unhurried pacing are rewarded with meaningful contemplations on memory and perception. Sparked by the sadness of discovering Mrs. Wilaporn’s young daughter, Gita (Puangpaka Aksornsawang), has passed away since her visit, Sai thinks of Oom and attempts to locate him. Contemplating how memories are stored and processed, and why fleeting images captured through a camera lens can leap to life years later and trigger suppressed emotions, Thamrongrattanarit suggests that Sai may have missed the opportunity to form a relationship by using her camera to admire Oom rather than speaking from her heart.
Far from attempting to answer such unanswerable questions as whether places can truly exist without a photographic record, Thamrongrattanarit employs the gentlest of tones and a collection of appealing and thoughtful characters delivering lucid dialogue to raise interesting ideas.
Filmed in 36 fixed frames that vary from wide shots with human figures dwarfed by buildings to close-ups, and everything in between, Thamrongrattanarit and lenser Pairach Khumwan cleverly present a range of image types that might easily correspond with anyone randomly plucking 36 photos from a box or digital storage device. Production design includes such smart touches as the inclusion of an old wooden cabinet that would have been used in the past for filing photographs.
An evocative acoustic guitar is subtly used to enhance the dreamy and elusive nature of the drama. The rest of the technical contributions are solid on a tiny budget.