The Face of Auntie Jen
Feature by: Ben and May
Written by Richard Lowell MacDonald
An English writer, now in his eighties, reflecting on the process of aging in a recent work of autobiography suggested that we each have a finite number of faces that last us through our lives, five or six at the most. Each of us passes through a series of transitions from one face to another. To our loved ones and colleagues these transitions are invisible, the passage from face to face barely seen at close proximity of everyday contact. With acquaintances and friends we see less frequently we can be struck, almost viscerally, by the suddenness of those transitions, and then as we adjust to the change in the other we realise that we too wear a new, older face.
Cinema, I have belatedly come to realise, is neither simply a window that frames a world, nor a mirror that reflects it; it is an optical timepiece, potentially the most subtle device we have for reckoning the passage of time. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that this is what I now cherish most about cinema, that it is time given visual form: it is ‘change mummified.’ The yearning for such a complex form of reckoning grows the further we, and those we love, progress and transition through those phases of life. Cinema too is an eloquent medium of faces and physiognomies, an evocative inscription of physical gestures. The filmmaker who returns to lovingly photograph the same actor’s face at intervals provides an ongoing meditation on our personal and collective movement through time, a meditation that resists the persistent tendency that movies have of closing around themselves, creating a world that we can comprehend fully, unlike the world of lived experience. Photographing a face at intervals of time implicitly suggests to us that life far exceeds our ability to represent it cinematically.
My relationship to cinema has also passed through distinct phases. I remember as a child wanting to sprint all the way home from the suburban cinema as if charged by electrical voltage from the hectic energy of the screen. I remember too as a young teenager being overwhelmed by technicolour tales of maternal self-sacrifice on weary Saturday afternoons in front of the television. I realise now that these small screen epiphanies were the gift of Cahiers reading cinephiles who pursued careers in public service broadcasting in the UK and eventually reached positions of authority from which they programmed their auteur seasons for the Christmas TV schedules. I owe them my first experiences of Sirk, Minnelli and Hawks.
A film I watched over and over in 2004 prefigured one such change in my understanding of cinema experience. It enabled me to discover something new in cinema. Watching this film was probably the first time I had genuinely felt cinema to be above all a rhythmic medium that pulses and throbs with light, sound and movement, powerful enough to slow my heart rate.
I have in mind the film’s concluding scene: its location, a jungle setting that pulses and ripples with the sounds of nature, the whine of crickets, the ripple of a flowing river. Light incandescent. Three characters have converged on this space; each seeks a temporary escape from burdens that bear down on them; the time discipline of factory work, the insecurities and dependency of illegal migration and gnawing memories of loss. The two women separated in age by a dozen years or more are presented, through their relationship to a young man forced by circumstance to depend on them, an opportunity to act out diverse compensatory desires. What intrigues me still is a charged and ambivalent moment that passes between the two women which fundamentally concerns the difference in their ages and therefore in the emotional burdens they carry. Leaving the man dozing by the riverbank the younger woman takes the other by the hand and leads her into the water. The tactile tenderness and solidarity of this gesture, two hands clasped, a thumb stroking the back of the other’s hand, gives way to a more double-edged, teasing interplay. The younger woman seems to pass from wanting to share this seized moment of pleasure unclouded by worry to flaunting a youthful aptitude for experiencing it. It is this barely conscious desire to press an advantage secured through relative youth that wins out. But as the older woman, played by Jenjira Pongpas, responds, tentatively yields to the pleasure of cool water, submerging herself, the look of suppressed anguish she has worn throughout the film lifts sublimely from her face, a moment of bliss as she stand up laughing and coughing. But the tone shifts again and she seems to be pulled back into reflection, gazing at her hands held out for scrutiny under the water. Close up these hands appear like an impressionist painting textured by sunlight reflected on water. Turning her hands over she slowly smoothes the loose skin around her knuckles and gazes at the backs of her hands appraisingly. Of all the dreamy tactility in this film it is this gesture implying inescapable self-awareness of one’s own ageing body that lingers for me. And whilst I remember that when I first watched this film I was seduced by the apparent eclipse of human cares suggested by the final frames, I am now much more inclined to see an unresolved tension between forgetting in the pure present, and the nagging weight of past time just beyond the frame.
This is not the only way my relationship to the film has changed or that the film has changed me. In retrospect I see that in jointly writing about this film some years ago I took the first steps towards forming my own relationship with the larger living landscape inhabited both by the filmmaker and my writing partner. This has in part been a journey within language, attempting to wear down the resistances of my native tongue to new vowels, consonants and tones. I hear this film anew then, listening to clues carried in verbal language where previously my aural focus was on the non-signifying aspects of speech and the drone of insects. It seems to me that from the moment you make your first clumsy efforts to express yourself in another language you invite a qualitatively different emotional tie with the place inhabited by that linguistic community. And so it has been. Ties are not forged in a historical vacuum: I have been drawn closer to the life of this nation during a period of intensified political crisis in which once powerful figures have lost their legitimacy in the face of unmet democratic demands. The physical landscape redeemed in this filmmaker’s work appears to me now as a more legible social space, a landscape of rebellion and autonomy, of solidarities and resistant matter, this, I realise, is the creative wellspring of all of these films.
August 2010 in Bangkok: the wave of popular protest on the streets articulating demands for political and social change has been brutally suppressed. The violence of the state is followed by the symbolic violence of so-called reconciliation; in effect a coordinated campaign of forgetting that denies the claims of the victims any legitimacy. In the midst of this collective amnesia the wretched spectacle of a royal birthday celebration accompanied as it always is by gigantic idealised photographic portraits, breathtaking in the dishonesty with which they deny the natural process of aging. A film is showing in this sad city that strikes a discordant note in this climate of brazen denial through its ethical invitation to recall the past life of the nation and attend to its traumas. Watching this film I am reunited with the filmmaker’s muse, Auntie Jen, visibly older and now limping from a motorcycle accident. She gazes pensively out of a car window as sunlight bursts around her still face. More clearly than in their previous films together her cinematic presence here simply and directly evokes the filmmaker’s affection for the actual person. She does not signify as a character within a story endowed with a series of traits and goals. Nevertheless the stillness and poise she lends this film, invites a concentration of attention that bears no relation to the casual indifference with which so many of the images that litter the urban landscape outside this cinema theatre are ‘consumed.’ The reticence of these meditative cinematic portraits provides a refuge from the flatly rhetorical and unambiguously meaningful images that populate this city. Here, if nowhere else, we can acknowledge the passing of time and perhaps through the reverie their stillness invites hatch dreams of a different future.