According to my trusty TIFF catalog, “In Thailand, a Royal Anthem honouring the King is played before all film screenings and is therefore an integral part of the experience of going to the cinema.” The anthem also plays at the beginning and end of the daily broadcasts of Thai TV channels. Although I’m leery of the propagandistic overtones—imagine hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” every time you went to the movie theater—and the anthem itself (see and hear a version here) has a pomp that might not be fitting for, say, a showing of Spider-Man 3, I like the general idea. I’ve always thought a palate cleanser before the main course—a cartoon, a newsreel—clears away the clutter that the popcorn line and twenty minutes of bad trailers leaves in the mind. (In America, Pixar’s the only production company that regularly offers shorts before its features. Yet another reason to love the studio.)
The double feature, the cartoon, the newsreel, the intermission during a feature as a projectionist changes the reels… I’m nostalgic for a cinematic past that had long dissolved before my birth in 1976. Silly me: I’m aching for something I never experienced in the flesh.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul believes in the power of hearing the anthem, and by association the old experiences of going to the cinema. But The Anthem reinvents the national anthem rather than wallowing in nostalgia.
We open abruptly—no credits—on a long, single-take shot of a house deck, overlooking a river on a beautiful, sun-drenched day. Two women sit at a table, facing each other and chatting. Whereas the Thai anthems I’ve found on YouTube are pomp and circumstance, the women’s conversation is so prosaic that the filmmaker might as well be flipping the bird to the establishment. One woman insists that the other try some of the mango she’s just cut up. They laugh and joke. The older woman puts a tape in her boombox, and tells the other: “It’s the new song by James. It’ll be a blessing for the village.” (I’m paraphrasing.) She presses PLAY. The younger woman hopes the song will be heard loud and clear, and the one’s who introduced the song clasps her hands together, in prayer, and directs her prayer over the river, where she hopes the pop song will carry all the way to the gym a few miles away.
That’s debatable. The song is pure diegetic sound at this point, and we can barely hear the drumbeats and a hint of melody over the talk, lapping water, and city street noise. A third woman comes into frame from the right, and the three talk about children and husbands. Or, rather, in the film’s biggest laugh: “How’s your husband?” asks one. The responder waves her hand in the air—“Oh, I cut him loose.” The camera stays still, never zooming in or following each woman as she speaks. There’s no cuts. This loose, daily ramble goes on for about three minutes.
Then, a sudden shift. We’re in a gym. Everything seems diametrically opposed to the scene before. A badminton game—a young man and a young woman on one side of the net, a single man on the other—is in progress, and the camera is circling around the court at a brisk pace. So we’re again seeing a great series of volleys—physical, rather than conversational—exactly as they occur. (The couple is overmatched—the single man wins all three points.) There’s lights flooding the scene, but it’s still indoors and dark. Glistening, artificial light hovers over the players and shines the wooden floor. Electrical cords and camera equipment are everywhere; whereas we felt like eavesdroppers on the house deck, Weerasethakul makes us constantly aware that this is being documented on film.
But just when we think there’s little connection between the stillness of the first scene and the frenetic nature of the second, we’re slapped into consciousness by two things. Although the pocks of racket hitting shuttlecock are audible, as are shouts of encouragement by the players and a group around them, they’re barely discernible over the soundtrack. It’s an extremely catchy technopop song, and it’s going full blast. Presumably, this is the gym that was discussed in the first scene—so, the blessing has reached its location after all.
The second thing concerns the nature of the filming. Again, it’s a single take shot from enough distance that we can see the full human bodies in motion. No zooms, no cuts. We’re eavesdroppers again, catching and hearing what we can from a view askew, as outsiders sneaking a glimpse.
(Of course, there’s a third thing, too. Both halves of the short involve three principal characters.)
A day earlier, I had caught Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion at Jackman Hall, with Peter Bogdanovich giving a brief introduction. In praising Renoir’s masterpiece, Bogdanovich mentioned that he loved how many long takes the movie has, how it dares to document a scene in live action without resorting to manipulation. In this way, he enthused, we’re seeing a bit of history. This actually happened the way you’re viewing it, in real-time.
That exhilaration comes through in The Anthem as well. Daily life as it’s being lived is captured, with all the errant sounds and light flutters that this implies. Rather than being a devotional to royalty, Weerasethakul’s anthem praises instead the people who are likely to sit in a movie theater, waiting anxiously for the lights to go down. And they do—a group of dancers enter the frame, just to the right of the court, and begin practicing a synchronized number. They take exactly three steps in unison before we cut to black, and the credits roll.
The 5-minute short begins and ends abruptly, in the middle of scenes. That’s the point—Weerasethakul wants us to see life in media res. The anthem’s motions are not set apart and distinct from the rest of life, but right there with what comes afterward—in this case, Heinz Emigholz’s architectural documentary Schindler’s Houses. The anthem is casual and poppy, but it cuts right to the heart.