'The Blue Hour' ('Onthakan'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A puppy-dog romance ambushed by genre jolts

Thai director Anucha Boonyawatana's first feature combines gay romance and startling genre elements and stars Atthaphan Poonsawas and Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang

A bullied gay boy at a Thai high school finds both sex and a sense of safety when he meets a young man at a dilapidated swimming pool for a hookup in The Blue Hour (Onthakan), the directorial debut of Anucha Boonyawatana. Rather than settling for yet another goo-goo eyed story of puppy-dog romance featuring two young men of hairless exquisiteness, the talented writer-director gradually introduces much darker genre elements that suggest something of the state-of-mind of the protagonist, whose peers and parents aren’t exactly on board with his same-sex proclivities. Though finally too uneven and too long to fully captivate throughout, this good-looking Berlinale Panorama title does mark Boonyawatana as a young director to watch.

Tam (Atthaphan Poonsawas), whose bullies think nothing of leaving him beaten up and bleeding on the sports fields of their school, meets Phum (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang) at a pool complex that’s abandoned and somewhat eerie but at least offers the two total privacy. They’ve clearly hooked up via the Internet and young Tam's obviously not familiar with the etiquette of random trysts, though here, and despite the not-exactly-sexy surroundings, he’s not shy to go after what he wants.

After a somewhat nervous and quick first sexual encounter (nudity and sex are more often suggested than actually shown), the two get talking around the pool and Tam reveals something of his day-to-day misery at school and at home, where his mother (Duangjai Hirunsri) whines about his father hating "it" (i.e., his sexual orientation) and wonders out loud why her son can’t have any pity on her and simply ignore his desire to be with men. Though it’s clear why the uncomfortable scenes with Tam’s family are needed, Boonyawatana and co-screenwriter Waasuthep Ketpetch don’t do themselves any favors here with some extremely didactic and on-the-nose (at least in the subtitles) dialogue.

The relationship only really takes off when Phum subsequently shows up at Tam’s home, manages to remain unseen by Tam’s mother by climbing up to the roof, and the two start hanging out. During a trip to a garbage dump that’s on land that used to belong to Phum’s family, the film starts to move into much darker territory, as things seem to move underneath the trash and corpses, gunmen and other assorted bogeymen seem to appear both here and in other places -- and it becomes clear that at least some of these elements might be manifestations of Tam’s subconscious. Indeed, Phum foreshadowed as much during their first meeting when he suggested there were ghosts present at the abandoned pool, a hint one should never take lightly in films from the country of filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This very welcome turn into less familiar territory means that The Blue Hour can abandon or at least heavily supplement its overly familiar coming-out and first-love romance angle, with several scary occurrences and twists producing both welcome and unwelcome frissons that’ll keep audiences on their toes. But Boonyawatana’s command of the film's tricky, mercurial tone isn’t strong enough to keep the film readable or even just engaging throughout and at almost 100 minutes, there’s at least a good 15 minutes that feel like filler material.

The digital cinematography, with its frequently shallow depth of field, toggles smoothly between crisp and darkly suggestive images, though Chapavich Temnitikul’s score is much better at ratcheting up the tension than at accompanying the melodrama. Besides the camerawork, production designer Phairot Siriwat's atmospheric locations are the key contribution that enhance the production values of this no-doubt very modestly budgeted independent film.

Production companies: G Village, 185 Equator

Cast: Atthaphan Poonsawas, Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang, Duangjai Hirunsri, Panutchai Kittisatima, Nithiroj Simkamtom, Chaowalit Teangsap

Director: Anucha Boonyawatana

Screenplay: Anucha Boonyawatana, Waasuthep Ketpetch

Producers: Anucha Boonyawatana, Areeya Cheeweewat, Donsaron Kovitvanitcha, Kaneenut Ruengrujira, Puchong Tuntisungwaragul, Vijjapat Kojiw

Executive producers: Kritbodee Ruengrujira, Vijjapat Kojiw

Directors of photography: Chaiyapreuk Chalermpornpanit, Kamolpan Ngiwtong

Production designer: Phairot Siriwat

Costume designer: Buangoen Ngamcharoenputtasri

Editors: Chonlasit Upanigkit, Anuphap Autta

Music: Chapavich Temnitikul

Casting: Rojjarek Luerojwong

Sales: Reel Suspects

 

No rating, 99 minutes

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