(Thai and Japanese dialogue)
A wartime drama about a Thai femme who loses both men in her life because of her indecision, “Sunset at Chaopraya” is a superior Asian meller whose excellent technical mounting and lack of histrionics make this of wider appeal to Western auds than usual for the genre. Movie is a feather in the cap of both the Thai industry and its director, Euthana Mukdasnit, best known on the festival circuit for the charming “Butterfly and Flower” (1986).
Story opens in 1944 with the funeral of a Japanese officer, Capt. Kobori (Thongchai McIntyre), observed by his Thai wife, Ungsumalin (newcomer Apasiri Nitibhon). After Allied bombing disrupts the ceremony, pic flashbacks five years , as Ungsumalin promises to wait for her b.f., Vanus, who’s off to England.
Docu footage pushes the setting forward to December ’41 and the Japanese occupation of Thailand. Kobori, a Thai speaker put in charge of Bangkok’s shipyards, immediately falls for the beautiful Ungsumalin when she’s swimming one day in the Chaopraya River. On her side, it’s hate at first sight, though she carries on seeing him due to his gentlemanly persistence and the chances it gives her to help the local underground movement.
When her father, a military higher-up, asks her to marry Kobori for political reasons, Ungsumalin agrees. The plot thickens when Kobori breaks his promise to leave her a virgin for Vanus’ return and she becomes pregnant. Then Vanus, by now a member of the underground, is captured by the Japanese.
Aside from its technical polish (with superb lensing, print quality and Dolby sound), the film impresses for its concentration on the central relationship between Ungsumalin and Kobori rather than becoming a multicharacter war drama or simple anti-Japanese tract. In McIntyre’s contained perf, Nobori emerges as an officer with doubts about his own calling, a disappointment to his strict father back home and prepared to accept Ungsumalin’s equivocal love-hate (and her bond with the absent Vanus) rather than lose her completely.
As the vacillating Ungsumalin, Apasiri doesn’t quite equal McIntyre in the acting stakes but is highly photogenic and holds the screen well enough. Other roles, such as Ungsumalin’s family and Kobori’s fellow officers, are well drawn.
In its bigger moments, pic has a visual confidence that sweeps the spectator along, with period design and music fully up to Western standards.