24 July 2009

WONDERFUL TOWN (Dir. Aditya Assarat, 2007, Thailand/Netherlands/Switzerland/USA/Republic of Korea) - 'Time For Change...'

The mysterious Na (Supphasit Kansen) is the owner of a hotel on the coastal resort of Takua Pa.

We wait and observe for waves as they gently fill the frame, covering up the innocuous sandy beach. The gentle rhythm that the director, Aditya Assarat, announces in the opening shot is maintained through what is a remarkably uneventful narrative, mirroring the weightlessness of the coastal town of Takua Pa in South Thailand. Set in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, Aditya Assarat’s debut feature is a moving and intimate study of small town values. The story involves a young Bangkok architect, Ton, who volunteers to oversee a building project in the touristy town of Takua Pa. Instantly enamoured by the slow pace of life, Ton decides to settle for the simplicity of a local hotel which is managed and owned by a young local woman, Na. As the love affair between Ton and Na develops, opposition to their happiness comes from within the town itself particularly Na’s brother, Wit’, who sees himself as somewhat of a timid gangster figure.

Assarat uses the central relationship between Ton and Na as a means of making a film about the Tsunami. We slowly discover that many of inhabitants of the town are still living in the shadow of the Tsunami – this is most visible, ambiguously though, in the character of Wit who has struggled to find a purpose to his life since the traumatic events of 2004. The film’s languid pace builds to a frightening and unexpected denouement which I really don’t want to spoil. No matter the scale of the trauma or the catastrophe that may afflict the people of a town as conservative as Takua Pa, prejudices and attitudes they may harbour are liable never to change. Ton makes one very fatal assumption; he fails to comprehend the contradictions and traditions lurking beneath what he sees as a benign and gentle town that offers him something very real and immediate – an escape from the grind of city life.

This is Aditya Assarat's debut feature.

Aditya Assarat is being touted by many critics and festivals as an emerging talent. He completed his formal film education and training in America, attending the University of California and was fortunate enough to be chosen for the ‘Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative’. Mentored by film maker Mira Nair, Assarat shadowed her on both ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Namesake'. I am assuming the deep impression a diaspora film maker like Nair left on Assarat as he was preparing to make his feature film may have influenced the decision to make a film in his home country of Thailand, and I wouldn't be surprised either that in years to come if Assarat like Nair also deals with the diaspora experience.

Tony Rayns, film journalist for Sight and Sound and one of the leading authorities on contemporary Asian cinema offers a detailed analysis of the film, throwing some invaluable light on the complexity of financing in the realms of art cinema today:

'As the opening credits reveal, he was able to make the film because he won support from a variety of private and public sponsors; he had a fellowship at the Sundance Institute in Utah, a year under Mira Nair's 'mentorship' thanks to a Rolex-sponsored arts initiative, and was further helped financially by the Thai corporation Singha and the Thai Ministry of Culture. Some of the post-production was underwritten by the Asian Cinema Fund administered by the Pusan Film Festival in Korea. There have been a few fatuous claims that Aditya's identity as a Thai has been somehow compromised by this international support, but the film is deeply embedded in both Thai realities and Aditya's own developing aesthetic, and all the more distinctive for it'.

- 'After the deluge', Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound Film Magazine, April 2009

Only a final note Assarat's debut reminded me of Chinese film maker Jia Zhang-Ke's 2006 film, 'Still Life', especially in how both choose to show landscape working in conflict with the lives of ordinary people. I think its the ending of the film which has really stayed with me as it points to a ugly conservatism lurking in the contradictory sensibilities of small town, provincial life.


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