Bright Lights Film Journal

Ghosts of the Present: On Aditya Assarat’s Wonderful Town

“The film is both a bittersweetlove story and a memorial to the tsunami victims.”

Wonderful Town (2007), the first feature film of Thai director Aditya Assarat (he co-directed the documentary-drama mix Three Friends in 2005), is haunted by ghosts. Which is not to say that it’s the latest contribution to Thailand’s commercially successful ghost-horror genre, something to add to the likes of Nang Nak (Nonzee Numibutr, 1999), Bangkok Haunted (Pisuth Praesaeng-lam and Oxide Pang, 2001) or The Shutter (Pakpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2004). Far from it, in fact, for Assarat’s slow-burning, gently evocative mood piece is firmly in the line of the work of Thai art movie auteurs Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. And the ghosts that haunt the setting and the film itself are those of the real victims of the 2004 tsunami.

Assarat has set and shot Wonderful Town in Takua Pa, a town at the centre of the tsunami, and the film is both the bittersweet love story that Assarat originally set out to make and the memorial to the tsunami victims that it was transformed into after the director’s visit to the town. It’s the latter feature that’s alluded to in the film’s opening shot of waves gently lapping the shoreline. The giant wave that brought such death and destruction has subsided but is still implicit in the quiet movement of water before us, just as the placid surface of the town keeps hidden and suppressed for the time being the pain and anger of the survivors.

There’s a dreamlike sense to the town, intimated in the way Assarat starts his story, after this shot of lapping waves, with female lead Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn) awakening from an afternoon nap. That scene is then parallelled at the end of the film, prior to the final tragic turn of events, with a repeat of this: a shot of gently rolling waves is then followed by Na waking up, although this time her lover Ton (Supphasit Kansen) is by her side. This is not to suggest that we should read the story of Wonderful Town literally as Na’s dream, but there is a metaphorical effect here, where the motif of dreams and sleeping adds an oneiric level to the drifting, languorous feel of life in this forgotten small town.

Ton is from Bangkok and has come to Takua Pa to supervise a hotel resort project on a nearby beach. He stays in the town itself, in a small inn where we first see Na working as what we assume to be a mixture of receptionist and room maid. In fact, in a demonstration of Assarat’s subtle and allusive narrative style, we only learn later that Na’s family owns this inn, and even then precise background details – what happened to Na’s parents, how she came to be bringing up her nephew (who we, like Ton, first assume to be her son) – are never made entirely clear. More important is the establishment of a general feeling of absence and loss, and the idea that this slow-moving, underpopulated town – we never see many people – is in a sense haunted by the ghosts of those who died in the tsunami. These “hauntings” are symbolised by the two abandoned buildings that Ton visits, one the old family home beside the inn, the other the ruined hotel next to the resort that the workers superstitiously warn Ton away from.

Ton and Na’s romance proceeds at a gentle, underplayed pace in keeping with the style of the film. He shows an early interest in her, helping her out with the laundry hung out on the roof of the inn (this is a site which will have symbolic import in the film’s final scene), and she soon responds to him, listening to the sounds he makes in his room, exploring his room in his absence. Their love affair seems so fluidly developed, so natural, that it’s almost a shock when Na warns Ton to be more circumspect, that the townspeople might react badly to their relationship. When some louts on motorcycles circle Na’s car threateningly, it’s like an incursion from another kind of movie, but it’s also a foreboding of what is to come. Those local layabouts are in fact led by Ton’s mostly absent brother Wit (Dul Yaambunying), a small-town gangster who confesses his inability to shoulder the responsibility of running the family inn with Na and who eventually seems to give his approval to Ton’s relationship with Na.

There’s a lot to admire about Wonderful Town, above all the patience, elegance, and delicacy with which it delineates both Ton and Na’s growing relationship and the environment in which it takes place – the small town of old-style dilapidated buildings, nestled beneath low-lying dull-green hills, almost as if it were suspended in time. Still, it’s not a perfect work by any means, and as much as Assarat’s fellow-Thai Apichatpong Weerasethakul will inevitably be invoked as a point of comparison, Assarat is a more conventional director, lacking Weerasethakul’s thrilling experimentation with form and narrative. Wonderful Town suffers from some lapses in tone: there’s an unfortunate moment of unnecessary prurience when the camera readjusts to leer at actress Anchalee Saisoontorn’s naked breasts; there’s an unconvincing scene that aims to show Na’s growing love by having her stroke Ton’s clothes (a banal movie-moment – does anyone ever really do this?); and the soundtrack’s “moody” guitar score is decidedly over-determined.

In the film’s climax Assarat aims to broaden the meaning of his film beyond that of the central couple. (It’s impossible to offer any proper analysis without revealing important plot points, so spoiler-averse readers are warned.) This final section follows on a revelation of Ton’s past and a sudden alteration to the future that has so far seemed to be mapped out for the couple. Leaving Na in bed, he goes out to his car, calls his ex-girlfriend in Bangkok, and tearfully reconciles with her. This casts a new light on Ton’s sincerity up to now – his professions of liking and satisfaction with the simple pleasures of small-town life, his commitment to Na. And although Na’s brother Wit can have no knowledge of Ton’s change of heart, the way Wit now removes his earlier approval of Ton’s relationship with his sister in overseeing his gang’s attack acts as a symbolic punishment for Ton’s abandonment of Na.

The gang’s murder of Ton is also an acting-out of their own feelings of frustration and resentment, their sense of their own abandonment. It’s not simply small-minded locals’ suspicion of and unthinking malice toward an outsider. When Ton’s body ends up floating in the water – water that brought death and destruction to the townspeople in the form of the tsunami – it’s a way of making Bangkok-dwellers, whom the townspeople feel have neglected and abandoned them, literally share in their own pain. Ton becomes the necessary sacrificial offering that leads to rebirth. This significance is reinforced in the film’s final image of the two young girls in tutus dancing on the inn’s rooftop.

But there’s one further sacrifice. When we’re taken back to the inn after the killing – although clearly some time has passed – we first see Wit now at work, a sign that he has accepted the family responsibilities that he’d avoided in the past. But the two shots of Na that follow are both images of entrapment, of her behind a window grille and then, on the rooftop, separated from us by wire netting. In a sense, the film abandons her here: life has adjusted and moved on, leaving the tragedy of her and Ton’s story as a reflection in miniature of the town’s larger tragedy of the past. The future is symbolised in the delicate balancing act of the two young girls as they execute their ballet steps on the rooftop, and when they leave the shot, the camera holds on the view out from the rooftop, tremulous and a little uncertain, but still one of hope for the future.