Ethnography, existential drama and a missing-persons story combine to mostly engaging effect in Thai arthouse entry “The Isthmus.” Centered on a Bangkok mother who is compelled to take her young daughter to a Thailand-Burma border town following the death of their elderly Burmese maid, the pic offers meditations on identity, community and spirituality that will appeal to audiences willing to go with its philosophical flow, but general viewers will likely be less captivated by the dominance of mood over plot. This steady feature debut for Thai co-helmers Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint faces a tough commercial challenge but should enjoy a respectable fest life. Local release details are pending.
Funded by agencies including Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and several international humanitarian organizations, the pic seeks to shed light on the frequently fractured lives of Burmese residents, transients and illegal immigrants living along the Kra Isthmus separating Thailand and Burma. A gentle approach free of speechmaking gets the vibes of sympathy and tolerance across nicely.
The audience stand-in here is Hom (Marisa Kidd), an 8-year-old girl whose adult voice recalls and interprets the meaning of life-shaping events from her childhood. A sensitive youngster with inquisitive eyes, Hom is taken from Bangkok to Radong province in southern Thailand by her well-off mother, Da (Sangthong Gate-U-Thong).
The reason for the journey is Hom’s sudden difficulty speaking Thai and a general spiritual malaise that has affected her since the death of beloved housemaid, Gee (Mg Nyo Aung Aung), an elderly Burmese refugee who formed a close bond with Hom and secretly taught her to speak Burmese. Hom’s condition is connected to a Burmese belief that when people die, the door of their house must be left open or their spirit will remain. To cure what’s essentially a case of non-demonic possession, Da believes Hom must “return” Gee’s spirit to her only known relative, Pew, a sister said to be living in Radong.
Helping Da and Hom to find answers — or at least pointers in the general direction of possible answers — is Dr. Thet, played by Saw Marvellous Soe, a renowned singer from the Karen minority. A kindhearted medico who also serves as unofficial social worker, finder of lost relatives and community singer, Thet offers the closest thing to a political statement when he tells Da, “This place is not my home any more.” Several sequences set in a halfway house for orphans and the homeless reinforce the sense of displacement and discomfort, though a few more concrete details on individual stories would have forged a much stronger emotional connection with viewers.
Elsewhere there’s Ngae (Mg Aung Koko), a security guard employed to ward off spirits from a half-built tourist hotel, and an unnamed elderly man (Rachain Nawalong) in a fishing village whose presence draws attention to Burma’s frequently persecuted Muslim minority. The odd man out is an unnamed Japanese geologist-turned pastor (Peron Yasu) whose odd role in this community doesn’t seem to serve any clear purpose. Meanwhile, Hom forms a lovely friendship with Thar-Gyi (Thar-Gyi), a boy of about her age whose fisherman father is missing at sea, presumed dead.
Assembled as a dreamlike series of loosely connected incidents, the search for sister Pew never gains much traction as a traditional missing-persons story, and several plot threads that initially seem important simply fade away. But the real story here is that of Hom’s strange emotional experience as a child and how it has shaped her self-awareness and understanding of the world as an adult. Hom’s journey with Da will be a rewarding one for audiences that can relate to observations in Hom’s voiceover narration such as “many things happen without reason. No beginning, no end.”
That said, many viewers are still likely to be frustrated by the very thin sketch of Da. Apart from the fact that she lives in a fancy Bangkok apartment and feels guilty about not having treated Gee well, little is ever known about this pivotal character.
Top-billed Gate-U-Thong isn’t given much of a chance to impress in only her second feature outing since “Citizen Dog” (2004). Though the film is hardly a performance-driven piece, debuting 9-year-old Thai-Australian juvenile Kidd is appealing and convincing as the troubled Hom. Other perfs are OK. Clean widescreen lensing and a nice piano and strings-based score are highlights of a solid technical package.