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The movie is an experiment in more ways than one. Apichatpong shot it mainly on the LomoKino, a brand new 35-millimeter camera that’s being promoted as cheap and easy to use. Judging from Ashes, the images it produces look more like old-school 16-millimeter than studio-quality 35-millimeter, but it seems an enterprising filmmaker can still achieve a variety of textures with it. Apichatpong relies on these different looks to give Ashes a subtle sense of structure, progressing from warm, sun-blanched images of rural life to sober, black-and-white shots of urban life, then back again. (It’s hard to determine where the coda was shot, though the spectacle of the traditional Thai funeral overshadows any sense of place.) This progression suggests how six years of political troubles—starting with the military coup of 2006 and continuing on to the massacre of 87 protesters in 2010—have tainted even the most remote areas of Thai life.
This sense of structure shows the clear influence of narrative cinema and points to why Apichatpong is a major filmmaker. Few other contemporary directors have shown such interest in collapsing the barriers between experimental and narrative filmmaking. (Abbas Kiarostami, whom Apichatpong’s cited as an influence, is another major example.) For fans of his work, his films convey an almost sensual drift between passages of storytelling and sequences that exploit sound and image for their own sake. Ashes sometimes suggests a sketchbook, the rough images conveying initial impressions to be used later as part of a feature film. I’m glad that Apichatpong’s willing to share his sketches with an audience—and for free, no less—as they offer insight into how his mysterious art takes shape.