Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review: 2022 Tsunami

  • Written, directed and executive produced by Toranong Srichua
  • Starring Pisan Srimankong, Sirinda Jensen, Panudej Wattanasuchat, Suchao Pongwilai
  • Released in Thai cinemas on May 28, 2009
  • Rating: 2/5

A wave of twisted moralism washes over the audience in 2022 Tsunami (2022 สึนามิ วันโลกสังหาร), an overly dramatic, disaster-epic version of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, or a low-rent version of director Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (or his upcoming 2012).

Bluntly and artlessly, Toranong Srichua uses his film as a cudgel to beat the topic of climate change senseless. An old-time social-realism moviemaker, he wants to show audiences the reality, but it is difficult to take his message seriously.

Never mind that 2022 Tsunami is only fitfully entertaining -- mostly unintentionally so because of the melodramatic acting and cartoonish CGI. All the moralizing and preaching about nice cars, fancy shopping malls and skytrain transport systems rings hollow when it's those very things that Toranong depends on in order for people to see his movie.

And, as he's so fond of pointing out numerous times in the film, none of it is going to matter anyway when the big wave hits, because everything will be gone.

So what's the point of anything? Especially of seeing this movie? Or writing this review? But I shall press on.

Thailand of 2022 looks remarkably like Bangkok of 2009. Same cars, pretty much the same skyscrapers, same skytrain and the same messed-up politics. About the only thing different is a giant Buddha statue, standing like the Statue of Liberty, in the Bight of Bangkok. The Buddha is holding a hand out in front, as if to say "Stop! You shall not pass." The Buddha figure later becomes a "Thai guardian angel" in the closing action scenes.

Leading Thailand's government is a prime minister (Panudej Wattanasuchat) who's on-message about climate change, its detrimental effects on the environment and its cause -- us. The movie opens with him addressing some kind of UN function, saying more needs to be done, and quickly, or else it's going to be too late.

As if to underline his point, a small earthquake rattles Bangkok, spooking everyone.

The PM is also on shaky political ground for heeding the warnings of a scientist, who says climate change is causing a rapid shift in tectonic plates and that earthquakes and volcanoes are going to cause a tsunami so huge it'll make the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake look like child's play. The PM's stance puts a damper on the development and tourism projects that a powerful partner in his coalition government wants to see through.

But the premier sees a bigger picture than just Thailand.

"What makes us special? If the world does end, we'll all be on the same planet," the PM tells an aide who tries to explain that Bangkok doesn't sit on any fault lines, and isn't threatened by any volcanoes. "Don't try to find exceptions."

The scientist, the Cousteau-like Dr. Siam (Suchao Pongwilai), is investigating reports of an underwater volcano that's sprung up off the coast.

"It's like a giant cannon in the Gulf of Thailand, pointed at Bangkok," says dolphin trainer Sindee (Sirinda Jensen), one of the pretty young things Dr. Siam has working for him. Her big scene is when she talks to her pink dolphin Mai Tai, telling it to head for deep water. The dolphin proves its superior intelligence by swimming away and is never seen again.

The buildup to the disaster is agonizingly slow and methodical, with Dr. Siam and his team, which also includes a young man named Phuket (Pisan Srimankong) and his pet chimpanzee, investigating volcanoes, earthquakes and other disturbances. Time after time, they are certain "the big one" is going to hit, and they warn the PM, who issues orders to evacuate. But they are false alarms.

"You're hurting tourism!" hollers the coalition partner, after he bursts into the PM's office.

Meanwhile, a subplot involves the nasty coalition government politician's son who wants to build a casino resort on the coast. His plans are opposed by the sea-gypsy fishermen.

Among the scientist crew, all the characters lost loved ones in the 2004 tsunami. The young man Phuket is particularly haunted by his memories, as is Dr. Siam. They dedicated their life to make sure Thailand would get an adequate warning about the next big tsunami, and that those warnings would be heeded.

Suchao's character, the nationalistically named Dr. Siam, seems to be patterned after real-life disaster expert Smith Thammasaroj, who's been accused of scaremongering with his dire predictions of earthquakes -- including a warning of the 2004 tsunami that government officials did not heed because no one wanted to take responsibility if the tsunami was not as severe as it turned out to be. And Smith is acknowledged in the credits.

But it's hard to take the movie seriously when the characters are so woodenly and melodramatically portrayed, especially the corrupt politician who harbors a secret and his son the hedonist, who swims with bikini-clad babes, takes drugs and kills sea gypsy fishermen. Toranong's perverted, heavy-handed morality is summed up in those characters.

The heroes fare a bit better, only because they are good. The sure and steady hand of veteran actor Suchao keeps Dr. Siam above the waves of obvious melodrama, but the poor man is saddled with a fake beard that's so crazy, he's dragged down and drowned with the rest of the cast.

Panudej does fairly well as the embattled prime minister, if only because he's eventually given something to do other than helplessly scream and run around -- the PM straps on a helmet and jumpsuit and leaps out of helicopter to save a busload of schoolchildren. Perhaps he's the kind of PM Thailand needs -- an action figure who turns commando when the going gets tough.

But the special effects are problematic. The CGI is meant to show Bangkokians just how vulnerable their coastal metropolis is -- how the tsunami will erase the city, the 16-story-high waves cleaning out condos, ripping the skytrain from its tracks, crumpling luxurious cars, destroying roads and snapping elegant suspension bridges like toothpicks. It's all accompanied by the deafening sounds of screaming and of a wall of water. I respect the time and thought that went into creating those CGI animations, but as the front-and-center effect for many scenes, they don't hold up to scrutiny, or mesh convincingly with the live action. Audiences know they are fake. Why not just build a Lego version of Bangkok, put it in a bathtub and turn on the tap?

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