One for the Road, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Baz Poonpiriya.
Starring Tor Thanapob, Ice Natara, Violette Wautier, Aokbab Chutimon, Ploi Horwang, and Noon Siraphun.
Boss, a high-end club owner living in New York, receives a call from his friend in Thailand, Aood, revealing he is in the last stages of terminal cancer.
Director Baz Poonpiriya (Countdown, Bad Genius) returns with a sumptuous melodrama which plumbs the depths of producer Wong Kar-wai’s thematic cachet for a richly rewarding, heart-swelling meditation on life, death, love, and atonement.
Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) is a handsome, well-minted bartender running his own joint in New York City, where he entertains customers with his cocktail-making skills and frequently spends the night with the female clientele. But Boss’ seemingly idyllic existence hits a brick wall when his estranged pal, Aood (Ice Natara), calls from Bangkok with terrible news; he’s dying of terminal cancer and wants Boss to accompany him on a final trip through Thailand.
Boss duly complies, joining Aood on a trek along their old haunts, where Aood insists upon pit-stops to meet up with figures from his past – primarily his girlfriends. But little does Boss know that Aood has far more in store than a wistful trip down memory lane.
If the slick opening moments of Poonpiriya’s film – an eye-wateringly beautiful montage of Boss bartending and hooking up in Manhattan – might suggest a flippant or superficial take on the well-trod “illness movie,” they really only belie the emotional journey the filmmaker takes viewers on over the course of his epic, ambitious 136-minute drama.
And there’s no doubt that the premise could so easily have devolved into a syrupy schmaltz-fest, yet Poonpiriya extracts such overwhelming honesty from his cast that even the more heightened drama feels entirely appropriate.
There’s an initial cuteness to Aood’s road trip diversions to pore over the past with his exes, but an avalanche of narrative and stylistic subversions give the film an exciting unpredictability, yet in its playfulness sacrifices none of its dramatic potency.
Aood may be an easy guy to root for, but there’s an uncommon honesty to Poonpiriya’s approach here; catharsis doesn’t always come easy, and in the case of some of Aood’s meetings with his former lovers, he’s simply forced to swallow the anguish.
After all, not everyone will appreciate an ex showing up out of the blue to re-open old war wounds. Real life isn’t ever tied off with a neat bow no matter how much dying people might try to wrap up their affairs; everyone dies with regrets and unfinished business, and it’s a brutal sentiment which gets plenty of well-earned attention here.
But the deft tonal switch-footing of the script ensures the overall tenor is one of hopefulness even in the face of death, that life comes at you fast and you never know what’s coming, so just try to enjoy it. It’s in no way a message unique to this movie, but powerfully told through Poonpiriya’s singularly grand canvas, ably laced with lashings of gallows humour as it is.
This isn’t only Aood’s story, though, and Boss certainly has his own share of issues to work through, most of which aren’t unfurled until the film’s second half. An intriguing mystery emerges pertaining to Boss’ ex-girlfriend Prim (Violette Wautier), deliberately unveiled by Poonpiriya as he pinballs us between time periods and cities, slowly filling in the blanks ahead of some show-stopping third act reveals.
To say more than that would be unfair, and while the compartmentalised presentation strives to render a relatively simple story more complex, the result is a breathless ride well worth taking; a bittersweet reminder of time’s speedy passage, and the moments mundane, euphoric, and heartbreaking which ultimately comprise a human life.
Though western audiences aren’t likely to be familiar with the central trio, their performances here are a vocal announcement of major talent. If it’s tough to preface a single one actor over the three, together Leeratanakajorn, Natara, and Wautier bring a soul-shaking humanity to these characters and their respective pains. Again, the potential for sentimental slush is absolutely there, and without such delicately calibrated performances, the storytelling simply wouldn’t convince as thoroughly as it does.
For a premise usually delivered with down-to-Earth, stately technicals, it’s refreshing to see a version of this story so free-wheeling with its style. Cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun’s ravishing lensing lends the film a marrow-rich palette throughout, while Chonlasit Upanigkit’s virtuoso editing bursts with propulsive energy from its quasi-pornographic opening bartending montage onwards.
That Poonpiriya interlaces his story with so many unannounced cutaways, non-linear divergences, surreal dream sequences, and so on and actually gets away with it, is a testament to Upanigkit’s outstanding editorial juggling act.
Vichaya Vatanasapt’s scintillatingly jazzy original musical score is marvelous, though perhaps topped by a fantastic soundtrack of classic pop cuts, pulled from a series of DJ tapes recorded by Aood’s late father prior to his death. From Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” the impossibly iconic songs are brilliantly placed – often to accompany one of the film’s grandstanding, affecting show-pieces – spaced just sporadically enough as to not approximate a jukebox.
One for the Road is at once intimate and epic, melding its operatic format and blockbuster-sized 136-minute runtime with deep-running, discomfortingly intimate emotions. Right up to its heart-rending, debate-inviting ending, it is a film that bats away cynicism and urges audiences to embrace the swelling feeling, nimbly matching uproarious humour with haunting observations of the human spirit.
This life-affirming, brilliantly acted melodrama will fill your eyes with wonder and make your heart soar. See it before Hollywood inevitably remakes it in the near-future.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.