The Pangs of Life
By Euginia Tan
People On Sunday
Thailand / 2020 / 21 min / Thai
Director: Tulapop Saenjaroen
At SGIFF 2020, Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, Programme 3
People on Sunday by Tulapop Saenjaroen questions the peddling of creative labour and the increasingly rapid need for well-spent time. The onslaught of anxiety built up from these stark statements of productivity reveals itself via three different voiceovers a first-time cast member, a tired cameraman and a freelance editor re-creating tutorial videos for an online audience.
It is the soothing, approachable voice of the editor we hear when the film opens, with a sample from her colour mixing video bartering phrases of encouragement and asserted positivity. The swirl of colours finishes and the actors appear on screen, captured in postures of leisure and rest. They sit in a circle, surrounded by not only each other, but by phrases of the betterment of life they excitedly chant. Whether it is eating wisely, a healthy amount of socializing and/or seeking new experiences, the actors parley on and on, punctuating their repetitive sentences with the assurance of “Interesting!”.
The first voiceover starts when the actors continue their scenes. We hear the commentary of an unidentified cast member recounting her feelings about answering the film’s open call. She is keen, motivated and interested. She admits her feelings of apprehension at the film’s message and the sedentary routine of her life, which led her to partake in something new. She is, above all, willing to work on this during her day off on Sunday so she can foster other connections and experiences. It is an echo of her enthused character in the circle. We also learn that the cast members are all not full-time actors, and this amateurism turns out to be a requirement in order for them to take on their specific roles. They await direction eagerly and mechanically, adding to the artificiality of feigned, ordained relaxation. This casting strategy complements the film’s paradox of yearning for rest, yet reaching a stage where being inert needs to be taught, prompted and cued under the instruction of making a film. Free time is compartmentalized, productivity is still prioritized at someone else’s whim.
The second voiceover is more jarring and haunting than the first. It is the distorted voice of the cameraman, his monologue a conflict between his personal life and creative labour, and the fact that his framed scenes still move deftly forward despite his clear exhaustion. His perspective becomes another fragment of the pursuit of productivity – we always have to be at the brink, on the verge of, precariously bordering at the edge of breakdown but never spiralling downhill. In his most poignant lines, he likens his body and mind to a credit card, to be spent to its maximum first, and the hefty debt paid later. These debts can only grow, they never diminish, because the spending is tempting and necessary in order for life to progress. Thriving (or the perception of) comes at the cost of self-medicating and relentless self-discipline. The cameraman persists in capturing his scenes, the tangent of his debts continue to reach new peaks. The mastery of self becomes a dictatorship of one’s choices.
The last voiceover takes place alongside the isolating still of an editor wearing a facial mask, sitting in front of the computer looking through her latest projects. After all the shots of peopletopeople interaction, we realize that the work of the artist is one of solitude. She faces her deadlines alone, fends off the questions she has about the worth of her work, and snuggles up to a bolster, her soft, sole companion to the demands on her screen. In folders, visuals, words and deadlines, she edits and adjusts her content to become justified deliverables. She fears that she will lose any possible shred of inspiration, so she consumes voraciously. What follows is a medley of her consumption, clips she has collected that result in a flurry of movement and urgency. It is in this rapid intake where we see how compulsively we feed ourselves information. It is almost a blood sport, a brutal athleticism of how much we can take in, digest and contain.
There is about a minute’s pause in the film before her segment begins, a grey screen showing an unassuming countdown timer appears. The seconds go by listlessly and the film resumes again. At this point, I realize how we have so cleanly dissected time to suit our survival. In years, months, weeks, days, hours and seconds, we liken time to pulses. It has to be kept alive, recorded and preserved so we can function. But why did we first start keeping track of time in order for us to feel the weight of our lives? Why do we not first feel the pang of life before we remember the concept of time?
The film concludes with the same swirl of colours it starts with. The voice of the editor careens us to accept a certain mundanity. She is still instructional, though her voice is less chirpy and rapt in its initial fervour. I think of my time on the Youth Jury programme as a parallel to these three voices in the film. There is the part of me who is new to film criticism, ready to devote my weekends to pursue something new for the sake of a well-rounded practice as a writer. There is the part of me who is exhausted and jaded from the demands of my industry on the weekday, also self-medicating so I can continue delivering material without appearing incompetent. Then there is the last part of me who parts ways after all my discussions with collaborators, administrators and acquaintances to engage in my work alone, in front of a screen. We consume voraciously for the festival. Time wanes, and I continue to find life apart from my words and work.