Dir: Aditya Assarat. Thailand, 2007. 92 mins
Aditya Assarat's first feature, a tragic, melancholy, minimalist love story taking place in what was once a Thai beach resort before the 2004 tsunami hit, offers a poignant portrait of a place grappling with the loss of its main source of income amid the stifling traditions which once might have been considered part of its exotic charm but now only impede its progress.
One of the highest-rated films in the Pusan 2007 selection and co-winner of Rotterdam's Tiger award, Wonderful Town moves at a leisurely, almost somnolent pace - essential for mood, but bound to limit its prospects to mainly festivals and art houses.
Assarat's entire plot evolves around only two characters, with a third added in the second half almost as a trigger for the tale's tragic ending. Ton (Kansen) is a young Bangkok architect sent to Takua Pa, a small provincial town in the south of Thailand which lost 8,000 inhabitants (and whatever charm it once had as a tourist destination) in the tsunami.
His job is to supervise the reconstruction of a beach hotel on the ruins of the old one which was destroyed by the storm. Na (Saisontoorn) is a meek, subdued young woman who spent a brief time in the big city before returning to Takua Pa to take care of the family business - a dreary, dilapidated inn, in which Ton is the only guest.
Their love story proceeds along a predictable course, but does so very carefully, with wary, understated gentleness, displaying a sensitivity which is quite exceptional - but risks coming across as dull.
From Na's early, tentative expeditions into Ton's room while he is away, the script gradually gets bolder as his stay in town is extended. Their timid first contact lead to chaste walks together, followed by more adventurous hikes, and by the time they are finally depicted consummating the relationship, the audience may have decided that the act has already taken place off-screen but the film is too constrained, like the society they live in, to show it.
And indeed, their anxiety is soon justified by the attitude of people around them, most particularly the film's third character, Na's brother, Wit (Yaambunying). A local hard man who rules sway over a nasty gang of teenage bikers, he does not approve of his sister's moral standards and will ultimately be the one to put an end to an affair that seemed too precarious to bloom from the very first moment.
Paying as much attention to context as to plot, Assarat's picture requires constant attention in order to decipher its intentions. He lingers on the washed-out look of the town; the deceptively-peaceful waves of a sea which only recently wrecked the place; the blank expressions on faces that evidently hide a lot more than they reveal.
Although the dialogue is pared down to an absolute minimum, an anguished undercurrent is felt all the way through, belying the general languid mood of the story. Saisoontorn and Kansen are obliged to carry most of the film on their shoulders, but manage admirably given the minute range of visible emotion Assarat allows - before his film finally dares, towards the end, to raise its voice.
Pop Pictures Co Ltd
Director of photography