Century of Smoke opens with an image that immediately exposes its subject, and underscores its primary aims ― a man preparing his bowl of opium beside the fire, gently stoking the flames before inhaling the fumes, as the room gets gradually covered by a thick blanket of smoke. Sleeping beside him are two little kids, just as oblivious to the man’s actions as they are to their own stagnating futures, their lungs slowly wasting away in an environment of tainted air. The camera’s perspective evokes patience and resilience, as it will do for the rest of the film, capturing the fragile light that filters out from the translucent layers of vapour filling up this cramped space.
The manner in which Century of Smoke was shot and edited belies its documentary tag
It allows our gaze to effortlessly blend in with the surroundings without calling attention to the intrusive presence of an outsider. Filmmaker Nicolas Graux thus presents us with an observation of people trapped within their own natural habitats, channelling an influence of the cinematic sensibilities of a certain Pedro Costa as well as the oriental meditations of Weerasethakul, as his frames recall the revelatory power of the camera shining light upon the darkest recesses of human lives. The film uncovers the existence of a handful of members of the Akha tribe, living in a small village in Laos that’s riddled with poverty and opium addiction.
As we spend more time with these men and women, it becomes abundantly clear that their apparent stoicism and self-awareness is merely a façade that hides crippled selves and dashed dreams underneath, the same way that their opioid cravings are a gateway to harder drugs like heroin. Century of Smoke is neither the classic cautionary tale about drug abuse nor a campaign aimed to spread awareness among victims of ignorance. And that is because these villagers and tribesmen prove to be well-aware of their predicament, of the various harms and problems that accompany their growing culture of addiction and also of the urgent need to stop getting high on their own supply.
These people aren’t in denial ― as addicts typically are ― but cannot cure themselves either, having fallen so deep into the well of substance abuse that their entire physiology is now held hostage by withdrawal symptoms. Graux is careful to properly investigate and uphold this delicate and complex relationship between the dependent and the dependence. A gnawing feeling of hopelessness turns spine-chilling, the more we realize how these humans are hurtling towards a slow-but-inevitable early death, precipitated by a lifetime of suffering. The indoor shots are predominantly all close-ups or close-mediums, almost always with a smoky haze lingering in the air that keeps curtailing our vision.
On occasion, Graux goes outside to take a breather with a wide shot or two ― acting as momentary respite from the asphyxiating stream of images ― but even then the pristine lap of the mountains, valleys and the skies fill up with thick mist or smog, Mother Nature almost sardonically mimicking the human condition inside the little huts. It is not just the addicted men we feel sorry for but also their helpless wives and children, descendants of Chinese immigrants who now yearn to move to China and start life afresh. The headlamps they wear, to see through the gloomy fog, seem like materializations of their inner will to pierce through the clouds of smoke they’re suffocating within.
Thus when the protagonist Laosan’s father goes on a nocturnal adventure through the woods, with a headlamp lighting up the way forward ― his journey accompanied by a voiceover monologue of a man recounting a tragic fate that befell his opium-addicted brother ― one cannot help but read the scene as an extended metaphor for these tribesmen desperately stumbling through the darkness that has engulfed their lives. Century of Smoke, therefore, exhibits some of the most potent utilization of the slow cinema aesthetic as a narrative technique: immersing us within the rhythms and patterns, hopes and regrets, real accounts and folk tales of this declining village that is gradually being depopulated. Graux’s long takes and steadfast framing channels the fatigue and inertia that afflicts their day-to-day routine lives, with the spectator gradually entering a similarly sluggish state of pensive contemplation.
Century of Smoke‘s final shot indirectly harks back to the opening images, with the images in between invoking a manner of reversed-causality that examines how people like Laosan come to be where they are. We see him and his tiny family setting up their tent for a day-long opium harvest, knowing all too well now that he will soon be returning to lie down inside his hut ― pipe in hand ― smoking his life away and perpetuating the timeless vicious cycle of reaping exactly what you sow, both literally and figuratively.