Friday, June 10, 2011

Blissfully Thai: Hi-So

The title of Aditya Assarat’s sophomore feature is a local hipster colloquialism for “High Society,” but viewers might think “Hi-So” is Thai for “Lost in Translation.” Like Scarlett Johansson’s character, a Thai movie star’s American girlfriend gets very bored idling around their hotel as he shoots the film within Assarat’s film, Hi-So, which screens this Saturday as part of Blissfully Thai, the Asia Society’s ongoing retrospective of Thai cinema.

Ananda is a true child of fortune. Though his mother’s luxury apartment buildings were damaged in the 2004 tsunami, she still has plenty of development irons in the fire. Meanwhile, he apparently lucked into an acting gig, played the romantic lead in a melodrama shooting around a nearby luxury hotel. It is low season though, so the place is nearly deserted. With only the hotel staff for company, the visiting Zoe starts to resent Ananda’s inattention, whereas he silently blames her for his sudden accents slips and faltering concentration on-set.

We do not actually see their break-up, but Assarat implies it in no uncertain terms through his remarkably deft use of awkward silence. A few weeks later, the movie is in the can and their relationship is in the dustbin. Wasting no time, Ananda puts the moves on May, a beautiful marketing assistant (who also has a three letter name). Though not completely star-struck, she still acquiesces to his dubious charm.

Descriptions of Hi-So often emphasize the events that seem to repeat in both relationships. Yet, the dissimilarities between the two women are arguably more interesting. Though May comes across as more sweetly innocent, she also seems to have a stronger sense of self that helps her manage Ananda, the slacker of privilege.

Recognizing the photogenic value of the deserted hotel and crumbling condos, Assarat indulges in many striking but static interior shots, much in the Ozu tradition. Indeed, he creates a mood of drifting numbness, nicely complimented by Shimizu Koichi & Desktop Error’s electro-ambient score. Unfortunately, the blandly self-absorbed protagonist does not give viewers much to work with. It is not that Ananda is a deliberate cipher or lazily underwritten. He is just boring. It is hard to understand how he could woo either Zoe or May, aside from his wealth, looks, and prestige.

An endearing screen presence, Sajee Apiwong invests May with surprising depth and humanity. Brooklyn’s own Cerise Leang (who will take Q&A after the screening) also projects understandable frustration and insecurity, often wordlessly, without overplaying the clichéd resentful girlfriend card. Conversely, Ananda Everingham mostly just suggests shallowness as his namesake.

Ultimately, Hi-So is all about discrete quiet moments and its overall vibe. Thanks to Koichi and cinematographer Umpornpol Yugala, it looks and sounds quite arresting. Artfully rendered but somewhat thin on a dramatic level, it really bears comparison to Sophia Coppola’s film in multiple ways. Of course, Ampiwong and Leang are both far more compelling screen presences than Johansson, while Bill Murray easily takes honors over Everingham. Imperfect, but arguably still well worth seeing as the work of an emerging auteur, Hi-So screens this Saturday afternoon (6/11) at the Asia Society as part of their current survey of Thai cinema.