In his 1987 book Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, Michael Taussig introduced the term “epistemic murk” to speak of forms of fabulation in colonial regimes that are cast upon the space of death. He described it as “the formless form of the reality in which an unstable interplay of truth and illusion becomes a phantasmic social force.” Much of Korakrit Arunanondchai’s work is committed to exploring and narrating the “epistemic murk” in which ghosts are a fragile entanglement of both historical constructs and factual reality. His films’ elusive storylines wander through territories of cultural and spiritual hybridity to conjure snake-like creatures known as nāgas and disembodied drone spirits through a mythography of Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest known temple; the history of Buddhist ghost cinemas; and rumors of a secret CIA prison in northern Thailand. Following a research trip to South Korea and an encounter with the esteemed anthropologist Seong Nae Kim, Arunanondchai looked at rituals of collective grief and resistance as they form an embodied knowledge for restoring historical erasure.
Songs for Dying (2021) interweaves histories of death and protest through what Kim describes as “the work of mourning,” the memorial activities honoring the forgotten dead that allow for communal healing. It is the narrating voice of a sea turtle—a revered spirit and descendant of a mythical dragon—that tells this story of loss, resistance, and familial love through which Arunanondchai’s memories of the last moments spent with his grandfather flow into the life of the forest, Jeju Island’s mythological origins, the legacy of haenyo’s sea farming culture, and their tribute to oceanic living systems. The footage of crowds that marched in protest of the Thai monarchy in 2020 to demand democratic reforms channels distant spirits—invoked in the shaman
ic rituals commemorating the Jeju uprising of 1948—with the promise of returning life to the anarchic forces of cosmic waters and ancestral currents. While acts of remembrance unite political struggles that are haunted by the militaristic erasure of restless bodies, throughout the film the songs of ghosts form lineages of unrest and sacred unions that dissolve the contours of life and death through loops of awareness, arriving from decomposition to shores of security.