It’s always darkest before the dawn.
Across horror films, the haunted house trope has remained one of the Western world’s strongest. From its humble beginnings as simply a cursed space where visitors and inhabitants meet gruesome ends, the modern haunted house film has evolved to explore how generations of trauma infect the space, becoming a musing on cycles of violence and pain households become ensnared in.
Now, Thai director Taiki Sakpisit has transposed that trope to an Asian setting, with his debut feature The Edge of Daybreak. Drawing on elements of Gothic horror and film noir, the black and white film is both literally and figuratively dark, as it examines a dysfunctional family across two moments in history, as they face the fallout from unspeakable trauma and loss.
At the centre of both periods is Ploy (Sunida Ratanakorn), who faces near death as a child, while her mother Pailin (Manatsanun Phanlerdwongsakul) is fresh from the sanatorium, her husband missing for the last three years, while she recovers in his family’s crumbling mansion with her brother-in-law (Chalad Na Songkhla). In the present day, 30 years on, Ploy is now a grown woman, before history seems to repeat itself, with her own husband smuggled out of the country leaving her in the same position as her mother was, with a young daughter in tow.
Based on that description alone, one could well reframe the story as a tale of doomed romance, but what Taiki does with that storyline is overlay it with a distinct sense of horror and dread. Much of this comes from the constant tension, where the characters seem haunted, trapped in their own wild thoughts, but never does it come to a heart-stopping climax, leaving you with that same unease even when the film is over.
While there are no outright horror elements, everything in the film points to something otherworldly that has latched onto this family, perhaps the lingering fear from the Thammasat massacre of 1976 and the military coup d’état of 2006. It is hinted that Pailin’s missing husband is a military man, lost somewhere out in the jungles in pursuit of rebelling university students, which then positions the family as one of privilege and power. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain, and the fear primarily comes from the realisation that the structures that have kept them in power are fast coming apart.
There are no actual ghosts in The Edge of Daybreak, but the characters themselves might as well be. Secluded and hidden away from the outside world, the family seems to exist on the fringe of reality itself, neither fully alive nor quite dead, as the enormous mansion grows steadily more dilapidated as the film progresses. The floors fill with leaves, the dining table is left with the remains of a last supper, slowly putrefying, as a chill wind seems to whisper to our protagonists. Outside, there is a half-finished pagoda, mist swirls around a vintage car, and at one point, we cut to the gruesome image of a butcher slicing flesh off a dead pig, made more visceral through the closeups and textures emphasised by the monochrome filter.
In the history of film, women have almost always been portrayed as more spiritually sensitive than men when it comes to the supernatural, and both Ploy and Pailin are particularly affected by this ‘haunting’. Both mother and daughter seem slightly unhinged and detached from the world, wandering the house and its outskirts as if in a dream, or in this case, a waking nightmare, suffocatingly watched by the men, as if predator sees prey. Throughout, there is almost always more darkness than light, taking a cue from film noir’s high contrast chiaroscuro effect, to make everything seem more sinister, or that the darkness is encroaching on our visual space, threatening to engulf and snuff us out.
With Taiki known for his experimental work rich in visual imagery, The Edge of Daybreak is a film that is best viewed in a cinema for the immersion, but begs for a rewatch, to be obsessed over and paused to examine each frame for its layers of symbolism and meaning. You’ll want to playback scenes just so you take in Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design, Chananun Chotrungroj’s cinematography and Rasiguet Sookkarn’s art direction, and how it all comes together to form a devastating portrait of a family collapsing in the wake of a new normal.
More than anything, The Edge of Daybreak is a film that draws you in to its heavy mood and drowns your senses in darkness with the weight of the horrors it bears. It is an art film version of the best suspense movies, with how it captures a disturbed psychological space onscreen, like a rich visual maze of signs we are compelled to read and make sense of, all while trying to suppress the sinking feeling that something terrible is clinging to our backs, and will never let go. For this family at least, there seems to be no happy ending, as the ebb and flow of Thai politics keeps them in this state of limbo, always running, never leaving, never waking.
The Edge of Daybreak screens on 2nd December 2021 at Golden Village Grand (Great World City). Tickets are sold out.
SGIFF 2021 runs from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here