Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Chris Houkal brings us Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s short film Zero Gravity (2012). A meditation on trauma and history, this masterpiece from Thailand defies easy interpretation.
Filmmaker Jakrawal Nilthamrong takes an unusual approach to describing a painful event in Thailand’s history. Despite having very little dialog, no real characters, and sparse use of sound and music, his film Zero Gravity succeeds as a fascinating meditation on history and trauma.
Zero Gravity begins audaciously enough. Like the famous scene in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr we get a POV shot from a dead person as he or she is driven to a morgue for storage. Our final shot of this unknown person begins with a pan across some empty metal beds leading to a steady shot of one particular drawer. Though there’s no follow-up (who was this?) this sequence sets the mood for the rest of this mysterious film. What follows has only partly to do with a paramedic as he encounters the aftermath of a horrible crime that has a lot to do with the past.
There’s something really tragic about Zero Gravity, even beyond what the opening POV and later shots of sheet covered bodies suggest, but I can’t say what it is exactly. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Thai history isn’t all that broad, so I can only guess that the film is attempting to understand some sad experience from Thailand’s turbulent past. It makes sense then that the nearest thing to a protagonist is a paramedic who says in voice-over that he was initially drawn to the profession because of the danger and risk involved.
But Nilthamrong doesn’t want us to empathize too much with this unnamed person, or any person for that matter, because in the end this is a film about atmosphere and feeling. So, in the spirit of the dead ‘characters’ are never developed and only showed obliquely: lying face down in a forest, reflected off his ambulance side mirror, from a great distance as he stumbles through the forest, and so forth. This isn’t a story about individuals, but an incident – a traumatic incident – which by its very nature is difficult to make sense of. Much like this film. It’s to Nilthamrong’s great credit that he’s able to show trauma as well as he does, which admittedly doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. But I get the impression that it is important viewing.
Like the best Western surrealist films, Zero Gravity follows its own dream logic. Which isn’t to say that it’s a hodgepodge of images meant to provoke. There’s nothing too weird about the imagery itself, aside from one scene involving a floating radio and another of a floating woman. What really makes Zero Gravity surrealist is its use of the non-sequitur. The best example involves the teenage girls who appear twice in the film, first just as the paramedic is making his way through a forest and later just after we’ve met the two camouflaged boys apparently responsible for the murder of the five people the paramedic discovered earlier.
I’d like to spend a minute on these scenes, as they are truly intriguing and definitely important. The first time we meet the girls, one is feeding change into a machine to recharge her cell data, while the other plays with her cell phone. They are talking about clothing and food. A lone man sits on screen right, saying nothing, and paying the girls no attention. In complete contrast to the rest of the film, the girls seem happy and seemingly unaware of any problems outside of that night’s meal.
It seems as though one of the girls is dating the paramedic, though she denies it. I say this, because as she tries to call someone, Nilthamrong cuts to that man now inexplicably face down in the forest. His radio is floating in mid-air. As we watch this, one of the girls – their conversation still continuing over the driver – complains that there’s no signal. At this point the ‘Immortal Woman’ appears to take the radio and the story continues where it left off.
The girls come back at the end of the film, following our introduction to the killers, and just before we return to the paramedic – lost in the woods one last time. This time they’re shopping for the clothing they discussed earlier, still oblivious to outside events. The inclusion of these scenes, and at these specific points in the film, is striking, and must be purposeful. My guess is they represent freedom in the midst of horror, as that is what their scenes literally are.
The closing quote reads: “From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.” Is this a call for resignation in the face of tragedy? It does sound almost like an Augustinian rejection of the material world, and in a way it is. But I think it’s probably less metaphysical than that. Couldn’t it simply be entreating us to free ourselves of the past? There’s something meditative, Zen-like about this film, which, granted, hasn’t helped my interpretation, but does ultimately suggest freedom, i.e.: zero gravity.
Watch Zero Gravity here.