“Minimalism is like…a Buddhist philosophy. It’s about letting go.” Happy Old Year (dir. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, 2019) begins with shots of overwhelmingly white, empty spaces. Each shot is pristine; the entrance frames a bedroom, its vertical lines form acute angles to the asymmetrical ceiling over the bed. Two windows with triangular etchings shine light onto neatly tucked bed sheets, softening up an especially lifeless space. An open closet reveals perfectly lined-up coats, their monochrome darkness adding depth to the snow-colored interior. Finally, a long hallway, a single gray sofa-chair and an accompanying side-table sit in solitude at its end. The pristine imagery evokes a blank-state calm, though its calm is rather eerie and uninviting. In the age of Marie Kondo, Happy Old Year questions the supposed simplicity of minimalism; decluttering becomes not just busy-work but emotionally laboring, and requiring painful self-evaluation.
Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), the film’s protagonist, embarks on a mission to renovate her family house in accordance with her IKEA-esque vision of minimalism––indeed, she believes her aesthetic is rooted in her time studying in Sweden. Her minimalism has become the face of the philosophy’s existence in the popular imagination; that is, an aestheticized (instead of moralized) vision of monochromatic design-porn that entails a certain deceptive maximalism. The purpose of minimalism is to simplify, to minimize one’s belongings in order to achieve happiness (or “spark joy”). But achieving its popular aesthetic requires complication––ridding oneself of all under-stylized belongings, and then consuming (a lot) to achieve outward “simplicity”. Modern minimalism is easily commodified, its simplicity fetishized (as denoted by Marx in his “commodity fetishism”).
The ethos of the philosophy aligns well with Marxist thought: “‘The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being,’ Marx argued. Stuff [emphasis added] is therefore the enemy of happiness…(Chayka)” Jean embarks on her journey of minimalism for (what she believes to be) a fresh start to purge painful family memories. Explaining to her hesitant mother (Apasiri Chantrasmi) her vision for remodeling their home, Jean says: “Our lives will be greatly improved.”
Happy Old Year muses on the irony of it all: firstly, through its own visual aesthetic. Shot on film, instead of digital, the narrower aspect ratio and slight grain give the images their own “minimalist” feel, slightly muted in comparison to the vivid look of digital images. Yet in some ways the medium of film is less minimal than the digital by virtue of its physicality. Jean picks up on this dynamic (physical versus digital): “I’m designing a minimalist house. Why should I buy books on minimalism? It’s the era of cloud storage.” Digitized storage minimizes the need for physical space––a CD replaces hundreds of paper photographs. But like the many trash bags that Jean fills to de-clutter, the compartments of digital storage are blackholes. “Out of sight, out of mind” as Jean says. The visual minimalism of the movie’s images are paradoxal, at once simple in aesthetic and complicated in production.
The film structures itself like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, referencing the now pop-culture KonMari method––Jean stars in “How To Dump”, her life narrating the six-step process. It goes as follows: 1) Set your goals and find inspirations, 2) Don’t reminisce the past, 3) Don’t feel so much, 4) Don’t waver; Be heartless, 5) Don’t add more things, and finally 6) Don’t look back. With constant references to KonMari, including parodied-versions of her Netflix TV show, the film certainly plays up the ridiculousness of it all: Jean seems to throw away everything, and spends not just effort but a lot of money to build her exemplary minimalist fantasy. As her friend Pink (Patcha Kitchaicharoen) remarks: “You don’t need to spend minimally on a minimalist house.”
Happy Old Year explores humans’ emotional connections to things, rendering its exploration of minimalism even more engaging. A commodity’s value comes from not its physical properties but from the emotions bestowed upon it. We keep things as they become entangled in memories; good or bad, throwing them away means facing them, their emotional content momentarily disturbed. Most of the “clutter” in Jean’s family home belongs to her father, who left them when she was young. They are old, dusty memories, untouched for a reason. Her mother protests almost violently, yelling at Jean: “What if I forget him? Will you be responsible?… Stop being selfish. If you want to forget, go ahead. Why are you forcing me to?”
We hurt each other with things; Jean does it all––by throwing them away, by forgetting them, by returning them. Her fast-tracked route to minimalism is less about the aesthetic and more about the feeling; she wants to feel less, she no longer wants to be reminded of the past, nor does she want to have any responsibility for her errors. She returns a film-camera to her ex-boyfriend (who she ghosted), briefly re-starting a (non-romantic) relationship with him, though it soon crumbles. She returns things to people––including her ex––but she does so selfishly, not considering the object’s emotional impact on others.
The film ends much like it began: a shot of a room framed by a doorway. Pre-renovated, the room is not yet minimalist as in the beginning; it is dark and its aesthetic is unorganized: carpeted floors, large grid windows, cabinets of various woods. Unlike the frigidness of its later minimalist design, the de-cluttered room feels bittersweet. Jean looks into the empty space, the camera zooming into an extreme close up of her. Staring straight at us, we share the moment with her; she struggles to keep in her tears, a single tear escaping as an expression of relief covers her face––more bitter than sweet.
*I recommend reading excerpts of Marx (from The Communist Manifesto, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)
*Happy Old Year is available to stream on Netflix.
Chayka, Kyle. “Minimalism is a Luxury Good.” Forge. January 28. https://forge.medium.com/minimalism-is-a-luxury-good-4488693708e5