Minimalism-obsessed adult versus messy memories of youth…
After a venture into the form of film essay in Die Tomorrow and documentary in BNK48: Girls Always Happy, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit comes back to classical fiction narrative with Happy Old Year. Similarly to his 2015 film Heart Attack, Thai filmmaker focuses on the sentiments, habits, attitudes and experiences shared by the generation of Millennials, now 30-somethings building up their career. In Happy Old Year the never-ending process of growing up and change, attempts to move on and let go of the past is brilliantly reflected through film form, trends in contemporary aesthetics that is closely linked to Millennials’ lifestyle and specific common philosophy, all wrapped up in one magic word – minimalism.
Happy Old Year follows Jean, a young woman who has just came back from Sweden to Thailand. She is offered a job in a design company that perfectly matches her deep interest in Scandinavian design, but under the condition of her having an office. She is determined to turn the commercial part of her family’s shophouse into a white, minimalist working space. Located in 1960s modernist, concrete building, the outside fits perfectly but the inside is filled with the remains of the music school and instrument repair shop that used to be run by Jean already deceased father. The private rooms of her mother, brother and Jean herself are cluttered with objects amassed over the years, all connected to memories or people from the characters’ past. Packing everything into black trash bags and throwing away will not be as easy as Jean had imagined, especially after she comes across one specific photo camera.
The narrative is based on a proximate retrospection. Happy Old Year starts with shots of white, clean, minimalist spaces, as Jean is interviewed about the idea behind such design and the complexities of the process. She seems to be a role model, a successful young entrepreneur with great perspectives for the future. However, it is the past that is crucial in Happy Old Year or more precisely, people’s attitudes towards it and the ways of dealing with regrets and pain. Memory works as a self-defence mechanism, in its selectiveness, it archives the experiences that are most useful for an individual to survive, regardless of them being good or bad. Memories of happiness can be as easily forgotten as the ones of sadness, so we all live in a state of self-regulating amnesia, producing our own subjective view on the past, the present and the future. Moreover, such seemingly benign self-defence mechanisms or anti-virus software can go corrupted very easily and infect the rest of the system as in the case of Jean and his mother. The younger woman seems cold-hearted, mechanical and determined to achieve her goal, whereas the older one is overly emotional and almost hysterical. The two ways of dealing with the past, indifference or overattachment, are extreme but most common. The scenes of arguments between daughter and mother are heartbreaking and utterly real, thanks to the actresses’ performances as well as brilliant scriptwriting. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit once again grasps the small moments of daily life and gradually builds up a story that makes the audience care about the characters, because it is easy to strongly identify with them.
Although the topic is huge and prone to lose control over, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit keeps characteristic narrative and visual rigour, akin to the minimalist form he reflects on. This auto-ironic and self-conscious move adds new layers of meaning to Happy Old Year, which envisages a world where static images take control over people’s ways of seeing, especially among Millennials. There is something spellbinding in the whole process, because the photos actually replace a real object, regardless if it is highly aesthetic curated visuals of Millennials or Generation Z craving for images of randomness and chaos. There are several scenes where Jean takes photos of the photos with utmost piety, whereas she is merciless when it comes to objects that visibly weights on her and seem to be limiting her freedom or maybe restraining the selfishness? Often there is a fine line between the two and Happy Old Year sharply explores this ambiguity.
The film also features outstanding acting performances. After the main role in immensely successful Thai teenage heist thriller Bad Genius (2017), Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying takes the centre stage as Jean, acting out the character’s inner conflicts, guilt, dissatisfaction with reality, both superiority and inferiority complex. Nevertheless, it is Apasiri Nitibhon that delivers the most powerful performance as Jean’s mother. The distant past is never fully explained but the heavy load and difficult experiences are written out on the character’s face and ingrained in her gestures. Although only episodic, but memorable role. The male characters tend to be toned down and remain in the background, but the actors’ performances are solid.
Although throwing away objects seems an ordinary and everyday practice, but in fact, it encompasses so many emotions, regrets, arguments with friends and family. It even can lead up to the major generational conflict, because regardless of the times, the attitudes towards the number of objects owned vary immensely between the all-discarding young and the all-amassing old. In Happy Old Year Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit once again grasps the complexities of memory and identity that clashes with the individual pursuit of the ideals of progress and modernity, all resulting in the need to come to terms with one’s own inevitable loneliness and selfishness. Highly relatable.