Wednesday 27 May 2020

Rivers wild: "Krabi, 2562"

This week, in lieu of any other travel plans you may have had, the movies take us around the world. First stop: the Thai coastal retreat of Krabi - not so far from Koh Lanta, if you know this particular tourist trail - for a hybrid film that requires a modicum of puzzling out. In Krabi, 2562, the artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers (A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness) teams up with emergent local helmer Anocha Suwichakornpong (By the Time It Gets Dark) to give us a film where location is narrative, or an itinerary becomes the narrative. The trick to watching it, I think, is to leave your baggage of expectation back at the hotel and simply ride along with the questing figures who recur before the camera; as they come across and learn about new things, so too shall we. The film scatters breadcrumbs of self-reflexive fiction, introducing us to a location scout (Siraphun Wattanajinda), being accompanied around town by a fresh-faced guide (Primrin Puarat), and an actor (Arak Amornsupasiri) who absconds from a beachside ad shoot - overseen by Fire Will Come director and frequent Rivers collaborator Oliver Laxe - only to find himself confronted by Cro-Magnon Man (Nuttawat Attasawat). Yet these are interspersed with moments of non-fiction, gathered on the fly: interviews with the locals, and a startling opening sequence in which schoolchildren assemble in a playground to pledge allegiance to King and country. "We prostrate our hearts and minds to the ruler whose merits are boundless": good luck getting British schoolkids to chant comparable sentiments upon the planned return to educational normalcy next week.

As it is, this isn't just an arresting but a very sound starting point, as the point the sequence has to make - about the ways docility and servility can be inculcated into a population - is school-bell clear. Rivers continues to compile experimenta of the most accessible and engaging kind: Krabi, as with most of this filmmaker's work, is governed less by lofty theoretical notions than physical, boots-on-the-ground practice, by a way of approaching the world. (They're too outward-bound to be confined to gallery spaces.) With Suwichakornpong as his own guide, he here succeeds in reframing a place that would have served as a glitzy globetrotter's Instagram stories (or the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Beach, namechecked in passing) so that it doesn't just yield a succession of pretty pictures, so that it and its people can finally occupy centre stage. That radical reordering entails the generation of a mystery that isn't so far from the one going on in the New York apartment of Michael Snow's landmark experimental work Wavelength, in that it hinges on an absence, what's not seen or shown. Having set this up, and having set the viewer to wondering, Krabi is then free to follow its own idiosyncratic path through this much-trampled landscape.

What Rivers has done is to take those ideas about representation - and what the camera rules in and out - cooked up in Professor Snow's lab-apartment, stuffed them in a backpack alongside a map, sun cream and several cans of energy drink, and taken them out into the world. Few working filmmakers are as genuinely caught up with the idea of looking, with seeing what the movie mainstream has neither the time nor patience to see: it's as apparent from one searching pan around the inside of a cave, registering its textures, flora, sounds and heat, as it is from a brief insert of fibres being studied under a forensics team's microscope. (In both cases, you sense Rivers staking out his own territory, on the border where art meets science.) Obviously, the process requires an engaged viewer to sift through the evidence Rivers and Suwichakornpong bring back and set before us: you'll need a mind that actively questions where the scout disappears to, what the cave dwellers represent, and indeed what the number in the title refers to, rather than getting progressively huffier about the lack of firm conclusions being reached. Even watched with my deerstalker on, the new film couldn't quite match the overwhelming sensory experience A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness provided - perhaps I'm just missing the big screen, and the immersive sound systems that come with it - but you do emerge from Krabi, 2562 feeling as if you've been somewhere, and been exercised while you were there. Anyone in the market for a package holiday with supplementary murder-mystery: your flight is now boarding.

Krabi, 2562 will be available to stream via MUBI UK from Friday.

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