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Decay; Memory; Remembrance; Forgetting: Thamrongrattanarit’s “36”

We can only remember so much. Consequently, the act of taking a photo or a video has easily integrated into our lives. We attempt to freeze a moment in its place and time, reimagining it as something tangible, to be revisited free of any reliance upon on ourselves to remember. The act of documenting, and its validation of memories, is a related obsession: photography offers us a way of remembering and giving a solution to the act of forgetting, documentation validates memories. In 36 (2012), Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s 68-minute-long film, the director delineates the human obsession with photographs and memories through protagonist Sai (Vajrasthira Koramit), a location scout, and her relationship with her co-worker, Oom (Wanlop Rungkamjad). As we follow Sai from her first encounter with Oom to her memories of him after she senses his absence years later, Thamrongrattanarit tenderly and poetically unpacks what it means to remember, as well as the act of documenting and accessing memory.

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Vajrasthira Koramit as Sai in 36 (COURTESY: Mubi)

In 36, photography is a means of validating one’s memories: it’s proof of something that’s gone hazy in our heads, tangible evidence and reassurance that something did indeed occur. When Sai converses with Karn, a director who’s preparing to film a movie, regarding a location he wants for his film, he shows her a photo of a building and says, “When I was a kid, I used to play around here, it used to be a clinic.” When Sai questions what makes the location so appealing, in the case of the location being unavailable and having to find a different place, Karn replies, “It’s not really about the structure of color, I just like…how would you say? The overall atmosphere of this area.” When it’s revealed that the clinic has been removed, Karn tells Sai that he’ll have to rewrite the script and adds, “Strange. Without this photo, it’s like this clinic never existed.” A similar sentiment emerges at the end of 36 with Sai’s disappointment that she’ll never have proof of Oom after he leaves the workplace. Sai takes her distress out on her hard drive, which is beyond repair and contains a huge bulk of photos she took, including several of Oom.

Thamrongrattanarit’s 36 also depicts the immortality of photography in Karn’s sentiment towards the old clinic. The medium’s ability to embalm a moment and thus rescue it from linear time means that although the physical space is altered irrevocably, Karn’s specific sense of its atmosphere lives on. Karn can therefore revisit a location with which he connects tenderly and deeply. The physical evidence of what now exists only in Karn’s memory almost reassures him.

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Vajrasthira Koramit as Sai in 36 (COURTESY: Mubi)

This desire for the proof of memory, for validation of our experiences, also manifests in Sai’s reaction to not having any photographs of Oom. Her disappointment comes from the realization that she will be without a tangible manifestation of Oom’s existence, as well as from the fear that she will forget Oom without something that embodies his presence. Having only her memory of the months they spent together as location scouts means that, for Sai, Oom will become part of the stream of memories inevitably forgotten. Her time with Oom rmains mortal and will continue to decay, succumbing to time like everything else undocumented.

However, even if the means of documentation offers us evidence of our past, Thamrongrattanarit warns us about the limit of that means. Documentation, and especially photography, often comes with a false sense of immortality: that we can preserve and rescue everything we need to. Sai’s attitude toward photography is a depiction of this false sense – when Oom points out a bird flying by while location scouting, Sai takes a picture instead of looking. When Oom mumbles that it would have been better for Sai to simply see the bird with her naked eyes, Sai replies that the moment itself would have then been lost in a stream of time.

Sai thus believes in the perfection of photographic preservation, something that 36 also shows us in her opinion of film and digital cameras. “Digital camera is easier,” Sai says; “just save [the photos] on a hard drive….You can’t shoot a lot with film. You have to get it printed and so on. It gets expensive.” Her attachment to documentation therefore comes both from the belief that photography will preserve everything and from the easy, affordable process by which digital photographs can be taken and stored. Sai’s obsession would appear to reduce reality to a series of cheap moments: why cherish an experience in its moment if digitization gives it immediate immortality?

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Vajrasthira Koramit as Sai in 36 (COURTESY: Mubi)

Indeed, while some form of documentation can grant us access to our memories, other instances of the same thing could also fail. These limits and the inevitability of decay are on display when Sai calls Jham after reading texts they exchanged in the past. After Sai notices a years-old message of Jham’s that reads “I love today’s conversation,” she asks if Jham remembers the conversation. The implication is that she does not – but Jham then asks Sai the reason for her sudden curiosity. “Nothing,” Sai replies. “I just want to know. I just want to remember.”

In another scene, Kai, busy fixing hard drives, is troubled by the number of people who’ve yet to reclaim their data from the mound of hardware towering over his desk. “Nobody comes to collect their stuff,” Kai laments. “I don’t know what to do. Calling them seems awkward. Who knows what they’re thinking?” Photography and documentation grant the illusion of preservation. Without a connection to the preserved items, though, the objects degrade just like memories, becoming ghosts that haunt us through details we can’t recall. 

Thamrongrattanarit’s 36 whispers to us that even without tangible means of accessing memory, some part of us will remember, via different ways of cherishing. Ultimately, Thamrongrattanarit contends that photography and documenting are simply two of the many ways of preserving memories. When Sai asks Jham if there’s any way he could repair her hard drive and thus grant her access to the photos she’s stranded without, her to get her hard drive repaired to access her bulk of photos from 2008, Jham tells Sai to visit Kai, and remembers his phone number off the top of her head. She’s able to do this, though it’s been years, because Jham “recall his number at the top of her head nonchalantly. When Sai inquires about this, Jham replies, “used to like him.” And in 36‘s tender final scene, Sai returns to the rooftop where she and Oom took a picture together. After Sai phones Karn, informing him about finding a location he might like, Sai stands with the wind brushing her hair, staring off into the distance alone.

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Wanlop Rungkamjad as Oom and Vajrasthira Koramit as Sai in 36 (COURTESY: Mubi)

For Sai, it’s a location, rather than a combination of numbers, that evokes memories. When she learns her hard drive is beyond repair, Sai unpacks her time with Oom: when they were location scouting; when they almost got kicked off the rooftop. She adds: “Come to think of it, I kind of miss him,” though she recognizes that she may never be able to revisit her love for him now that her few photos of Oom are gone. With Sai’s return to the rooftop, Thamrongrattanarit seems to suggest that the act of embalming and cherishing a memory need not manifest in tangible forms – they can also appear to us as intangibles, residing in places and things. Sai does not need photographs to remember Oom. What she needs is the wind she felt on the rooftop, the sun hiding in the pastel sky, and the time of the day. These elements, amalgamated, grant Sai a piece of Oom, one she uses to revisit him and the time they shared.

Remembrance does not have to manifest in forms of exact replications of our lives. Our everyday objects are saturated with memory. The act of freezing a moment does not only manifest when we press a shutter on a camera; memories become fixed upon and into places and objects where we least expect to find them. They are secretive, private, and personal; they speak to us in places others gloss over; they are a long stare into the distance and a private moment of silence. Anything can have a history and a memory for us. Decay may be inevitable, but that doesn’t necessarily have to equate to sadness; we seem to forget that forgotten memories can, with the right trigger, live a second life. Loss may be painful, but it’s important to understand that joy preceded it: losing something and gaining something in return don’t always have to be bitter.

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