Out of Time: The Videos of Tulapop Saenjaroen

By Jesse Cumming

In her 2023 book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Jenny Odell writes that “at its most useful…leisure time is an interim means of questioning the bounds of the work that surrounds it.” The passage is evocative not only for the way in which it delineates the ever contracting parameters of free time, but also for the ways the language of temporarily is reoriented to the spatial. It feels like an apt point of entry for the work of Thai artist Tulapop Saenjaroen, whose increasingly ambitious video works over the past decade have attempted to engaged with these very questions.

Few contemporary artists feel as attuned to late capitalism—and its insidious means of extracting both our time and resources—as Saenjaroen, whose works offer means of escape from or refutation of these forces. However, the slippery relationship between labour and leisure is only one of several established binaries he troubles, among them visitor and local; narrator and audience; wakefulness and sleep; and stillness and movement. With a background that, appropriately, bridges moving image and performance, and work that circulates in both festivals and gallery-based exhibitions, Saenjaroen is refreshingly nimble in his genre-bending approach, which embraces as easily as it discards elements drawn from documentary, narrative, video art, and more.

Formally, the creative use of voiceover remains one of the artist’s most compelling and provocative cinematic devices, and across his videos it is regularly deployed in intricate and exploratory forms. While at times invoking the language of a traditional omniscient narrator, it is regularly subverted or placed in dialogue with other voices, troubling not just the idea of a storyteller, but of character, protagonist, and subject as well. Across his projects, the perspective of the voiceover hardly ever remains stable, instead always offering an additional or alternative layer. It feels unsurprising that he regularly integrates 3D modelling and imagery into his film work, as the sonic, narrative elements produce a similar sense of depth and complexity.

This shifting vantage points invoked through voiceover are also present through the settings, characters, and plots of Saenjaroen’s work, particularly the ways in which a visitor, or an outsider, is able to reveal the palimpsestic layers present in a specific location. Whether a tourist visiting a resort, a family member returning to their unfamiliar home, or for-hire actors relaxing in nature, Saenjaroen’s videos reveal the multiple, often contradictory experiences that can unfold and coexist within a single location.

Such themes and devices are seen as early as Nightfall (2015), which was co-directed by Saenjaroen’s regular collaborator Anocha Suwichakornpong (By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016). Initially emerging out of a residency Suwichakornpong undertook in Singapore at the invitation of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, the hybrid piece assembles both composed, observational footage of the city-state alongside staged sequences with Suwichakornpong and actor Vel Ng in hotel rooms or navigating Singapore’s tunnels and parks. In an extension of the Thai filmmakers’ reflection on their role in an international cultural exchange, the voiceover incorporates recitations from two related 1973 dialogues between former prime minister of Thailand Thanom Kittikachorn, and prime minister and de facto founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. “Under your able guidance and leadership, Singapore has made a great stride forward towards greater prosperity and welfare of her people,” the former extols in the first, while noting his own ambitions for such greatness in Thailand and emphasizing the importance of the countries’ bilateral ties, before Lee offers prescient words about external pressures in the region. Unspoken, and left outside of the frame of the piece, is the extratextual information that these remarks were exchanged less than a year before Kittikachorn’s deposal, which casts the already steely, overcast footage of Singapore under an added shadow.

While Nightfall’s palette and pacing may bear more of a resemblance to Suwichakornpong’s narrative features than the vivid colours in Saenjaroen’s subsequent work, the piece introduces a number of the latter’s signature creative techniques and concerns: shifting perspectives in narration, the exploration of space through the experience of a visitor, and an examination of how the present will connect with as-yet-speculative futures. Such concerns recur, albeit appropriately reoriented, in Saenjaroen’s breakout short A Room with a Coconut View (2018). Set in the tourist city of Bangsaen, in the artist’s coastal home province of Chon Buri, the piece not only subverts the tourist gaze but also the ways in which space and narratives are constructed for the purposes of locals. To borrow from the opening exchange, a virtual hotel guide, Kanya, describes her offer of a room with a sea view to a guest, only for the window frame filled with towering, beachfront trees to prompt the retort: “This is not a sea view. It’s a coconut view.”

Adopting from the language of condo or tourism promotional videos, the film’s interest in the ersatz and surface level is immediately established, alongside cracks in that very same facade. “My name is Kanya, I’m an automated voice that can speak Thai,” we hear. “I’m a hotel rep who is a tour guide in Bangsaen.” Stylistically, these early passages are laden with glittery, deliberately chintzy effects and tropical-flavoured lounge muzak, as the tour moves seamlessly from spaces of leisure (restaurants, pools) to typically unseen spaces of labour, as a woman staff member loads an industrial laundry machine.

Before long, what we might have expected to be a fixed, unidirectional monologue is met by second automated voice—that of the foreign tourist Alex—posing questions about the nature of images and what they can or can’t reveal. “Is there anything not literally in the frame that you want to tell me?” he questions. And indeed, the video soon spirals out from its initial container, delineated by the hotel resort and its accompanying tour, to reflect on the history and dynamics of the town itself. Thanks to the ever-generous Kanya, we learn that prior to its development in the ’40s the site was effectively deserted, before the self-mythologizing real estate mogul and hotelier Kamnan Poh established the haven of leisure we now find ourselves immersed in.

The film’s great rupture arrives at its midpoint, as Kanya falls asleep mid-presentation and the footage we’ve seen up to this point begins to deconstruct itself in her dreamscape, with a melee of layered and distorted images set to an equally dense and hypnogogic soundscape. In the piece’s latter half, a third automated voice, Tessa, introduces herself as “the narrator for this part of the film,” in which the ever-unseen Alex unpacks both Kanya’s dream and his tourist experience of Bangsaen. Echoing Kanya’s dream sequence, the contradictions encountered by the protagonist gradually seem to trigger a collapse of self, alongside a corresponding blur of manipulated and neon-soaked interventions.

The inherent tensions of sites dedicated to rest and relaxation are explored more directly in People on Sunday (2020), whose title and content cite and respond to Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Weimar-era classic Menschen am Sonntag (1930), which Saenjaroen had previously invoked in his 2013 Slade graduation project. In direct reference to one Menschen am Sonntag’s most iconic frames, the first image we see in People on Sunday is of a sleeping woman’s horizontal face, her head resting upon a hand belonging to another, unseen body. In the film’s early moments we’re greeted with similar extended shots with figures posed in tableaus, their suspended movements cushioned by a soundscape of bird calls and other clues to the ambient, natural surroundings.

As if challenging discourses of “slow cinema,” including the critical language—”ponderous,” “dreamlike,” “contemplative”—that has accompanied the work of his nation’s most acclaimed cineaste, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for the past two decades, Saenjaroen here manipulates temporality and spectator experience to force attention to the ways in which time is capitalized upon and controlled. It doesn’t take long for the tranquility of these earlier, protracted compositions to be ruptured by the revelation of their construction, as handheld shots from another angle reveal the swarm of film labourers working hard to prepare and perform these images of relaxation. Echoing Siodmak and Ulmer’s low-budget, set-free shoot—particularly its initial promotion as “a film without actors”—and with shooting limited to Sundays (given the cast’s full-time employment commitments), Saenjaroen updates some of the questions the original raises about artistic labour to invoke contemporary self-improvement culture. Of course, Saenjaroen makes sure to include behind-the-scenes footage of the performers being paid cash for their work—the labour of performing leisure.

In typical fashion, Saenjaroen’s use of voiceover is ambitious and disorienting, variously incorporating a mock motivational audiobook, a guided mediation, retrospective reflections on the shoot from a non-professional performer, the internal musings of a behind-the-scenes photographer, and the thoughts of an editor working with the assembled footage. Similar to the spectatorial reorientations prompted by the film’s meta revelations, each voice and their at times contrapuntal relationship to the images we see onscreen invites us to place our own subjective spectatorship alongside that of myriad others.

With Squish! (2021), Saenjaroen turns from a natural shooting location to the possibilities permitted by the controlled environments of a studio, or—as the piece’s explicit engagement with animation suggests—the frame itself. The work is as (deceptively?) playful as ever, but with a style that incorporates more in-camera devices in lieu of post-production effects. As with People on Sunday, the film plumbs and responds to specific histories of the moving image—specifically, the little-known figure of Sanae Klaikleun, a forgotten early experimenter in Thai animation whose ambitions to produce the first Thai animated film came to naught. It feels notable that, in each case, Saenjaroen is drawn to films or practices that sit at a liberatory pivot point, adjacent to established industries and histories, with each gesturing towards potential futures.

“The initial idea of Squish! is derived from my personal urge to question how depression is usually represented on screen and how it could possibly be done otherwise,” wrote Saenjaroen in a piece about the film for MUBI. The central “protagonist,” who delivers the voiceover, is a fragmented animated figure—seen through traced silhouettes of an ear, an eye, a dog’s leg—representing the less-than-wholeness of depression, and the suspended sense of becoming. “My character is to be forever incomplete, because my creator has already cancelled my future,” we hear it say. They declare themselves to be “innate wreckage,” before committing suicide “to enable movement,” in an animated sequences of dots and lines that tip from the figurative to the abstract. Eventually, the image zooms out to reveal a YouTube window above the heading “Leaked! An Animated Character Committed Suicide.” A series of responses, remixes, and other permutations follow—my personal favourite being “Animation suicide chillaxing version.” 

In both Squish! and Notes from the Periphery (2021), Saenjaroen deploys a voiceover that is sutured to a single personage, but one which offers space for varied modes of expression, for perspectival lacunae, and for ambiguity. Working in a vein closer to experimental documentary, with Notes from the Periphery Saenjaroen returns to Chon Buri, particularly the port city of Laem Chabang. As with Squish! the artist employs tracing with markers on transparent glass, as well as superimpositions, to abstract and deconstruct our understandings of these forms. Borders and boundaries are introduced and reified through images of signs warning against swimming and trespassing, security guards, and footage of barbed-wire fences. Playing with perspective, the film repeatedly introduces compositions in which the vast but abstract infrastructure of containers, cranes, and ships populate the background, while in the foreground manual labourers fish and trawl alongside the shore. As if offering a political intervention by means of montage, Saenjaroen at points collapses the distance between the two realms in superimposed images, several of them corroded through the use of video manipulation.

Voiceover only emerges in the final passage of Notes (which is one of the artist’s rare pieces driven primarily by ambient and artificial soundscapes), with its English cadence borrowed from informative nature documentaries as it recites the encyclopedia entry for barnacles. As ever, the perspective and mode of address prove fluid, as the narrator defaults to Thai and turns the focus from arthropods to their own life, ambitions, and future dreams. “Wish that somehow I could export myself abroad,” they declare, over distant footage of the docks. “No one knows what the future holds.”

Which brings us to Mangosteen, Saenjaroen’s latest and longest film to date, a work that feels like an evolution of his artistic vision and ambition while at the same time synthesizing several of his pre-established concerns. Shot entirely on hazy Hi8, and less beholden to montage and sourced material, the project hews more closely than ever before to narrative, including onscreen dialogue in addition to the ever-slippery use of voiceover. Here, however, narrative isn’t merely a device but rather a central point of inquiry in the film’s plot, particularly the ways stories and storytelling permit not just alternative views of the present, but also of the future.

Having moved to Bangkok for work, Earth returns to his home in Rayong province, where his sister Ink’s factory processes the eponymous fruit into shelf-stable juice (a small-scale prefab convenience that is both future-oriented and a small contribution to a leisurely life). While there, however, he bristles against the locale, and the ideas he proposes to his sister—including new designs for the packaging—are rebuffed, with the suggestion that they might be more appropriate in a few years.

This first half of the film is guided, in traditional form, by an omniscient narrator that introduces and details not just Earth’s background, but also the operations of the factory itself—not unlike Coconut View’s Kanya. “Ink and Earth do not share the same view,” it elucidates as the siblings disagree. “To put it differently, they define the word ‘future’ differently.” Navigating a place once familiar that is now rendered alien, and with his sense of self threatened, Earth retreats into writing before disappearing completely. The film is accordingly carried away temporarily into the world of his violent story, with the initial narrator ceding voice to this tale’s protagonist, a former factory worker who imagines decapitating Ink. Eventually, the narrator removes himself entirely, as Ink begins to write her own stories, albeit haltingly. Her voice, reciting a message to Earth, commands the video’s aural space.

It feels telling that, as far as Mangosteen retains a sense of narrative climax, it occurs as Ink takes a ferry to the nearby Koh Samet Island. As with many of the figures in Saenjaroen’s work, she’s now a visitor, a day-tripper, newly able to consider her own path and place. As she stands face to face with the seaside statue of Nang Phisua Samut, an ogress from the Thai epic poem Phra Aphai Mani (1844)who lulls her victims to sleep, she wonders aloud: “Can characters from other stories help me?” and “Why am I do damn unimaginative?” 

This crisis of imagination is so deeply felt as it remains one of the most powerful tools that Saenjaroen’s films offer as a counter to the unease of a future invoked (or threatened) from the perspective of a weighty, exploitative present. It’s no surprise that Ink comes face to face with a figure that puts other characters to sleep, as Kanya’s dream sequence in Coconut View upsets the capitalist order of her presentation. The fact that the scenes of sleeping in People in Sunday are merely performances feels particularly fraught, as it means the action is devoid of reverie. In Notes from the Periphery, the narrator cautions themselves, “I shouldn’t daydream too much now.” But the repeated occurrence of an activity in Saenjaroen’s work suggests that, if anything, one should daydream, as a means of both departure and arrival.

jcumming@cinema-scope.com Cumming Jesse