- Written and directed by Rooth Tang
- Starring Matt Wu, Lu Huang, Kris Wood Bell, Kazohiko Nishimura, Ananda Everingham, Sajee Apiwong
- Limited release in Thailand on December 10, 2015; rated 18+
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
Fragments from around the globe form a story in Sway, the ambitious debut feature from Thai-American director Rooth Tang.
In three cities, there are couples going through the motions, but are somehow stuck:
- In Paris, Chinese-American drifter Arthur (Matt Wu) has just landed at the airport. While trying to figure out his next move, he tentatively reconnects with his girlfriend Vivian (Lu Huang), a former TV star from China who is trying to make it as a serious journalist. Arthur then gets news from home that his parents might get a divorce.
- In Los Angeles, Amanda (Kris Wood Bell), the Caucasian second wife of widowed Japanese businessman Eric (Kazohiko Nishimura) feels she is on shaky ground with her husband's teenage daughter Grace (Miki Ishikawa). She is giving her young stepmum the silent treatment.
- And in Bangkok, well-travelled Thai hipster Palm (Ananda Everingham) romances less-worldly office girl June (Sajee Apiwong) and fills her head with dreams about future destinations. She also has a belly full of Palm's baby, and is afraid of what will happen if she tells him he's a father.
It's the first feature from Rooth, a graduate in film studies from the University of California, Irvine. He was raised in America by Thai parents, and took inspiration from his mum and dad, who had participated in the pro-democracy movement at Thammasat University in the 1970s, but then moved to the US. In short, he wondered, what was that like?
Filming started in Bangkok in August 2010, just months after the red-shirt anti-government demonstrations. At the time, Rooth was unsure whether his project would be a short film or develop into something longer. Thanks to a windfall and financial help from his parents, who are among the producers, the Los Angeles segment was added, and then to Paris, where filming wrapped up in 2013. After a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Sway has swung around the globe, with appearances in Taipei's Golden Horse fest and the Singapore International last year and this year's Shanghai fest.
Sway draws its influences from the expressionist palette of Wong Kar-wai's films, the globalized existentialist angst of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel and the quietly simmering family dysfunction of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata.
Sway will also seem particularly familiar to fans of independent Thai cinema, thanks to its coincidental connections to two recent Thai indie movies that also dealt with brooding Asians who are adrift in the world - Aditya Assarat's Hi-So and Lee Chatametikool's Concrete Clouds. Both featured Ananda in similar roles of a rootless vagabond of sorts, and Hi-So actually featured both Ananda and Sajee. Both films were also by directors whose backgrounds are similar to Rooth's - they are all foreign-schooled Thai filmmakers seeking to express feelings of being caught between Eastern and Western cultures but not really sure which side to pick.
Those connections were further solidified in post-production, which was completed in Bangkok at White Light studio, under supervision of Lee.
Rooth is seeking to develop a style that is distinct from those he's influenced by, coincidental or not. With Sway, he drops you into people's lives mid-stream, but you don't need to paddle to keep up. Instead, it's best to just float along and watch the stories unfold.
The intended result is that the audience has the same ill-at-ease feeling as the characters, who themselves aren't really sure who they are or what they should be doing. Romantic chemistry is palpable, especially with the Paris and Bangkok couples. Dialogue is clipped and spare, with smoldering sidelong glances, angry grimaces or worried frowns doing most of the narrative heavy lifting.
It's left to minor supporting characters to finally and fully explain what motivates the main ones, with June's pragmatic Thai mother putting her at ease, and the Japanese-American teenager to explain why she's been so awful to her stepmother. In Paris, Arthur's mother turns up to reflect on her life as an immigrant and help point her son in a definite direction.
Real-world events place the three segments in different times and help ground them, with the political crisis of 2008 to 2010 providing the backdrop of the Bangkok story, while Barack Obama's re-election as U.S. president in 2012 is referenced in L.A. France's intervention in Mali is mentioned in the Paris segments.
Symbolism and metaphors crop up frequently, mostly noticeably in the Bangkok segments, where the small composite-plastic figure of a bird represents the ambitions of Palm, who thinks he can get rich making widgets from the hi-tech hybrid material. The bird is later found shattered on the floor, along with the possibility of broken dreams. But then another stork-like symbol emerges on the Bangkok skyline - a construction crane - representing hopes for the future.
(Cross-published in The Nation)