In the land of the tsunami, love and menace
Fledgling Thai director Aditya Assarat begins the stunning Wonderful Town with flat, screen-filling images of gentle waves that introduce the locale of southern Thailand hit hard by the 2004 tsunami. This opening heralds the film's strong visual sense as well as a prevailing serenity that is not without edges of menace as time goes on. Convincing performances and lovely visuals serve a subtle, haunting screenplay and the whole shows a strong narrative sense that pays off with the cumulative power of the finale.
This is the story of a young man and woman who come together in a kind of limbo. Their personal stories emerge in bits and pieces as a romance develops between Ton and Na. Ton (Supphasit Kansen) is an architect who comes from Bangkok and stays at a very ordinary hotel where he meets Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn), who seems a clerk and maid, but emerges as the sole member of the owner family who is present to run the place. Ton's work is on a project nearby where luxury resort buildings are under construction near unrestored, perhaps haunted relics of the storm damage. He's volunteered to be here to please the client and in effect just spend a peaceful two months away from the noise of the capital doing not very much. The setting itself, the tsunami town of Takua Pa, is the inspiration for the film.
Ton is interested in Na right away, as he openly reveals when he goes out on a rooftop to help her fold up laundry. He's not so much flirtatious as open and relaxed in a way that shows he wants to be with her. Na is reserved but receptive. A scene where she listens to him singing in the shower shows she's interested too. They go on a little "date," they kiss, they walk together here and there.
There aren't many people around: an older man and woman who work at the hotel; then after a while Wit (Dul Yaambunying) appears, a dicey individual who might be an estranged husband (he's moved out; she asks him to come back), but turns out to be Na's brother, a self-declared reprobate who won't come to help run the hotel.
The romance between Ton and Na is marked by beauty and delicacy. The whole locale seems a place of openness and quiet, despite the noise of the construction site, which Ton has to drive back and forth to. Ton's personal ease is underlined by his tendency to break into little songs. He turns out to have had an earlier life as a musician and his father so disapproved that for five years they've been out of touch.
There's disapproval closer at hand. Four boys on loud motorcycles who circle around and around are the first powerful sign of threat; they're like Cocteau's avenging angels or the hot-rodders in Manuel Pradal's Marie baie des anges. Now Na's warning to Ton that this is a small place and they need to be circumspect makes sense. From then on every scene effortlessly communicates its hints of hostility, perhaps serious danger.
Assarat makes it all seem so simple. The earlier scenes are flat and undeclarative, with the camera often still. The Director of Photography Umpornpol Yugala provides lovely, soft colors and is equally effective in eye-filling closeups of Na's bare skin as with landscapes with figures in the distance. The tight-lipped dialogue keeps the viewer attentive. Zai Kuning and Koichi Shimizu provide delicate guitar backgrounds that hint at uncertainty as well as fill in a sense of calm. Every moment counts. The sense is of a place that's as much traumatized as it is recovering.
Ton's and Na's back stories are a little mysterious. It's not certain what Ton is planning to do at the end.
Aditya Assarat has produced a remarkable film that promises much for the future. It received awards at Las Palmas and Rotterdam and was part of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center this spring as were six other SFIFF selections. It opens in Paris May 7, 2008.
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. At the end of the festival Assarat's film was awarded the New Directors Special Jury Mention. (The New Directors Prize went to Moshon Salmona's Vaermil.)
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/