Sundance 2021: ‘One for the Road’ Review

Editor-in-chief Tomi Haffety joins two friends taking a road trip into the past.

With an energetic feature that encapsulates both his life experiences and fast-paced cinematic success, Baz Poonpiriya is the first Thai director to have their film accepted into the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic competition. Produced by Wong Kar-Wai, One for the Road took over two years to write before filming. The international production was made difficult once lockdown hit New York, the location of 40% of the film, and the team were forced to replicate a New York cityscape within their Bangkok studio. The adversity faced by Poonpiriya and his team is indicative of the international undercurrent of the feature and the modern narrative of globalisation and migration that is interwoven into the story.

Separated by all the uncertainties and hectic complexities of modern life, two old friends live on opposite sides of the world with very little contact. That is, until Aood (Natara Nopparatayapo) calls New York in the middle of the night and a happy-go-lucky Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) reluctantly picks up, losing his fling for the night as he tries to untangle the news that Aood shares with him. Diagnosed with cancer and refusing to undergo chemotherapy, Aood asks for Boss to return to Bangkok so that they can take a road trip of redemption across Thailand. While the initial plot feels somewhat generic and done to death, One for the Road offers more than a shallow ‘bucket list’ story. It does well to explore the deeper intricacies of each relationship that Aood is seeking closure for. Questions of morality and whether Aood actually wants to die underpin the friendship between the young men as they navigate the past, continually resurfacing with each pit stop. There are a myriad of impressive shots throughout the film that cement Poonpiriya’s place as a successful filmmaker, already having achieved the highest-grossing Thai film in 2017 with his thriller Bad Genius. These masterful shots culminate in the final scene when the camera films through the wing mirror of the car that has taken the men across the country over many months as it rides into the sunset.

Filling the void of helplessness, Aood tries hard to make peace with his three ex-girlfriends who are now living and thriving in their own lives. With a small cast of only five main characters, each story is explored with the intimate depth and focus that wouldn’t be possible with a larger ensemble. Staying close to the theme of internationalisation, Poonpiriya incorporates a retro western soundtrack with songs like Tiny Dancer playing against the bucolic Thai countryside, as well as Thai music that the cast sing and dance along to. The American connection to Thailand is also explored: Boss and Aood’s stint in New York seems very exclusive to the Thai diaspora in the city. Emphasising and romanticising the connections we hold to our roots, One for the Road reiterates the importance of feeling grounded in a place where you feel familiar and comfortable. Familial bonds are also a paramount feature of the story, with Aood’s father’s voice permeating the scenes as his radio show acts as the soundtrack to the road trip and ties in the unwavering posthumous affection felt for loved ones.

Exhibiting the vibrant youthful energy of its characters, the dramatic feature is fast-paced and at times too Hollywood-esque to be taken entirely seriously. There are elements of Wong kar-Wai in the neon lighting of Bangkok and while I may have been guilty of looking for the connection because of his involvement in production, there are sure signs that Poonpiriya drew inspiration from the veterans. Toward the end of the film, there is a subtle change of plot direction and the friendship between Boss and Aood that once seemed so solid is exposed to be weaker than assumed. However, through Aood’s journey to redemption and forgiveness, the friendship prevails as a formidable force of love and solidarity.

Exploring drama, comedy and romance in one feature is a skilled and difficult thing to achieve. Poonpiriya masters the nuances of this feat. One for the Road has a definite direction, and the writing never strays into unexplored territory making for enjoyable and upbeat watching. Winning the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Creative Vision was not a surprise as the diversity of shots, subtle comedy, as well as emotional monologues throughout the storyline, come together to create a unique and nostalgic feature.

One for the Road had its premiere at Sundance 2021, and is not currently set for wide distribution in the UK.

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