In many ways, the debut feature from Bangkok-born, American-educated Aditya Assarat, "Wonderful Town," has all the hallmarks of a workshopped Sundance indie: an eminently tasteful romance between two ingratiatingly sweet people burgeoning against a backdrop of recent tragedy, buoyed by delicate guitar score, bracketed by self-consciously lovely landscape shots. A detailing of the emotionally and physically ravaged coastal area of Takua Pa following the December 2004 tsunami that cost it more than 8,000 local lives, "Wonderful Town" means to use the event's aftereffects to evoke its characters' personal displacement. There's no doubt that Assarat has talent for situating people within gracefully framed environments, but in an overly studied manner that leaves no room for the sort of spontaneity in performance and composition that the film's subject matter warrants.
The intentions may be noble, but look at the work of a filmmaker like Jia Zhangke for the sort of complex representation of the interplay between man and constantly changing environment that Assarat means to capture. In Jia's "Still Life," two people searching for missing loved ones and themselves, wander among a formerly populated district that's about to be submerged in water to make way for a major dam project, and he incorporates his actors into this already demolished real environment in a wholly unobtrusive way; his aesthetics are a byproduct of the chosen location. Assarat, on the other hand, approaches his environment as an aesthetic object unto itself: Takua Pa, whose coal-grey skies and green, green grasses are photographed with the utmost care, becomes the opportunistic background for a reserved pas de deux.
The love story, which occurs between Ton (Supphasit Kansen), an enigmatic architect visiting from Bangkok, and Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn), a doubly enigmatic young woman running a local hotel in her parents' absence, mounts with the sort of inarticulate, artful shyness one might expect from a Drama about Lingering Sadness. As overly composed and hushed as it all may be, the actors go a long way in investing us in what often seems too purposefully distanced, especially Supphasit Kansen, whose sexy swagger occasionally peeks out of the aesthetic strait-jacket the film puts him in. One wishes these two would break away and speak their minds, relate their loneliness, uncover embarrassing passions -- thank Wong Kar-wai for this new art cinema of tasteful romantic distancing; his "In the Mood for Love," while still one of the most visually exquisite films of the decade, has seemingly set an irrevocable template for how to appropriately represent longing onscreen. Yet when buffeted up against a real-life tragedy such as this one, such posturing seems disingenuous at best.
Despite its lengthy interstitial landscape shots (waves crashing, laundry flapping in the breeze), the film has a fairly conventional story and pacing, and its methods of incorporating landscape imagery into its character-based narrative has a particularly Western aspect to it (cutting suddenly at the end of conversation scenes from medium close-ups to diligently composed long shots over a music score, in order to maximize beauty). But if "Wonderful Town" seems typical, or at least redolent of a particular kind of art-house film, it also takes its main character in a somewhat unexpected, though not entirely convincing, direction. And even this out-of-left-field conclusion, with its sudden burst of violence, is shot through with remoteness -- a little outright melodrama at this point might have been alleviating.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]