An elegant combo of slow-burn romance and social realism set in a Thai village devastated by the 2004 tsunami, “Wonderful Town” reaches deeply into the hearts and minds of people struggling to rebuild themselves long after the physical shockwaves have subsided. Consolidating the promise he showed with short subjects and as co-helmer of the nifty docudrama “3 Friends,” Aditya Assarat’s solo directing debut marks him as a talent to watch. A touching film with powerful cathartic qualities for domestic and regional auds, pic deserves to extend its reach even further. A prestige fest passage seems certain.
Filmed in the southern Thai town of Pakua Pak, which bore the tsunami’s brunt at the cost of 8,000 lives, pic signals its gentle intentions with a long opening shot of small waves peacefully rolling into a shoreline. Meditative tone informs all that follows, beginning with the arrival of Ton (Supphasit Kansen), a Bangkok architect sent to oversee the building of a new resort. In a land where belief in spirits is high, construction is pointedly taking place adjacent to an apartment block left untouched since the disaster and rumored to be haunted.
The only guest at a spartan hotel, Ton is instantly attracted to its Thai-Chinese owner Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn). A reserved woman with a city education, Na appears unresponsive to Ton’s polite overtures at first. But via a beautiful series of snapshots showing Na touching Ton’s clothing and listening to him sing in the shower, she is able to externalize her true feelings. Progression from hand-holding innocence to tender lovemaking is affecting and tastefully done.
Virtually a two-hander for the first half, pic expands its horizons by perfectly measured steps as the couple’s flowering romance gets local tongues wagging. Leading the voices of disapproval is Na’s brother Wit (Dul Yaambunying), who heads a gang of motorbike-riding no-goods and calmly tells his sister he’s a hopeless case for reform.
Maintaining firm tonal control, Assarat confidently streams in thriller elements as the relationship becomes an extremely dangerous one.
With minimal dialogue and assured performances from its well-matched leads, pic registers powerfully as a pure romance and as a haunting portrait of a place that has rid itself of the physical reminders of trauma, but where the population remains largely in a state of suspended animation, emotionally.
Subdued palette employed by lenser Umpornpol Yugala plays a crucial role in reflecting the drained spirits of Pakua Pak townsfolk. Classical compositions and subtle lighting enhance the reflective mood, with sudden bursts of color toward the finale bringing the promise of hope out of tragedy. Evocative guitar-dominated score by Zai Kuning and Koichi Shimizu is memorable, and all other tech work is on the money. Quality of HD-to-35mm transfer is first-class.