On location, language and love in a time of change, Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So uncovers Thailand after the tsunami.
American Thai by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Opening with shots of the sea and ruined hotels along Thailand’s Andaman coast, Hi-So picks up the gauntlet thrown down by Aditya Assarat’s previous film Wonderful Town. While that film, shot a couple of years after the tsunami, focused on the painful difficulty of rebuilding and the inescapable trauma of the past, Hi-So explores the areas that haven’t changed four years on. A Thai abbreviation for ‘high-society’, Hi-So begins with Zoe arriving at an empty hotel to visit her half-Thai, half-American boyfriend Ananda, who is acting the lead on a nearby film set. And it’s a punchy opening, cutting from Zoe collapsing on her hotel bed via the wryly placed titles to an empty abandoned guesthouse, where Ananda plays a man waking from a coma. In a world of farang, fortunes and film-sets, this high society is a far cry from the devastation still inflicted on the rank and file.
Ghosts of the tsunami and past trauma however still haunt Hi-So, from the desolate film locations to the film-within-a-film itself, illustrating the loss of memory. Ananda lives in his mother’s building, but in a different apartment, unable to cope with the childhood memories now wrecked and laid to waste. In fact, much of Thailand appears to be rubble in Hi-So – the country’s a building site in the process of reconstructing, caught between the past and the future. Just as the decimated hotel keeps the past horror of the tsunami alive, Ananda’s apartment block is being torn down to make way for a future road to a shopping mall. Thailand is caught between the past and the future, and between East and West, a dichotomy embodied by bilingual Ananda.
There’s a beautiful symmetry to Ananda’s relationships with women. In the first half with Zoe, she asks him to read aloud from his script, unable to understand Thai but still listening to its sonorous beauty. The scene is repeated in the second half of Hi-So when May asks Ananda to read from the English language newspaper the Bangkok Post – both women approaching the foreign in him they can’t understand. And it’s these two women’s misunderstanding of him that provides the emotional backbone to Aditya Assarat’s film. For women fall in love with Ananda easily, with his film-star good looks, confidence and sociable nature. But the feeling’s hardly mutual, and for Ananda women seem to exist only in the present, requiring little emotional investment.
It’s almost Cubist in its focus, Assarat’s camera following all three protagonists – Zoe, Ananda and May. Is Hi-So the portrait of a man, his two lovers, or a man seen through women’s eyes? While he is active and dynamic, both women seem bored, whiling away the empty hours on the phone or in the pool, sleeping, washing or wandering round apartment blocks in flip-flops. Zoe, left alone in the hotel, is easily frustrated by his work commitments, and refuses to be part of his photo call. Even their on-set argument is interrupted by the rigours of the film set, when the sound recordist demands silence for a clean feed. May is put off by Ananda’s sudden desire to hang up his old deer skull, and by his drunken, loud and boisterous mates from the US. And both Zoe and May are equally exposed to the farang in him, his frequent conversations in Thai in the first half, and in English in the second, alienating them from a culture they can’t hope to share.
Split cleanly into two halves, Hi-So ellides the end of his relationship with Zoe, if an end there was. Suddenly and abruptly, he’s with May, Zoe returning to California never to be heard of again. With such a sharp divide, on a metaphorical level, it’s as if a bridge between the cultures is impossible, both in the film’s structure and Ananda’s impossible relationships. As such, Hi-So is a pleasant cul-de-sac, a hypnotic and dreamy look into the idiosyncrasies of one man’s present tense. Sober in its palette of muted colours, the faded restlessness of internal space is made up for with beautiful moments outside, Zoe and Ananda’s silhouettes back-lit by car lights at dusk, May and Ananda’s moment together on the sun-kissed rooftop and the dazzling green and red party strobes. Moments of beauty in the everyday. And offering a poetic and ruminative glimpse into both one man and Thailand’s present, Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So is a captivating peek into a high society riding the wave of change.
Hi-So is released on 1st March 2013 in the UK