Tsunami: The Aftermath (review)

Waves of Humanity

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the same old imperialist “Westerners go to exotic places where poor brown people live and die all the time in awful ways, but now It’s Important and It Matters cuz it’s happening to Westerners,” but give Tsunami: The Aftermath a chance, will ya? For one, some of the Westerners are brown themselves, and some of the Westerners, brown and white alike, are explicitly trying to subvert Western imperialism, and all of them are suffering in extraordinary ways … just like the one poor brown guy whose home this is, where rich Westerners come for fun in the sun while he and his folk are out slogging fish in from the ocean or serving poolside drinks that cost more than they earn in a week at resorts where a night’s stay costs more than they earn in a year.
I’m only being a little facetious. This HBO miniseries — Part I debuted last Sunday; Part II debuts tomorrow; both installments will repeat throughout December and January — blasts through the typical objections to films like this one (see above) by being just plain brusque about the vast differences between the rich tourists and the far poorer natives of the resort playland coast of Thailand. Of course everyone in the way of the giant wave of the December 26, 2004 tsunami was impacted differently, in some ways — the tourists, at least the ones who survived, did at least get to escape home, whatever other psychological trauma they would continue to live with; they did not lose their homes, their livelihoods. But by sticking with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, from the moments of the huge inrush of water to, by the end of Part II, New Year’s Eve a few days later, everyone is reduced, if only temporarily, to the same level of bare subsistence: “I have a toothbrush,” one British tourist (the hauntingly lovely Gina McKee: The Reckoning) tries to explain — distractedly, as if she cannot believe this is all she has, and that only because aid workers gave it to her — to a consulate worker who wants to assist her but can’t seem to get assimilate the concept that her passport, her clothing, her husband, and absolutely everything else she once had in her present possession are simply gone.

And yet it is even worse for Ian and Susie Carter, a British couple played by the utterly worshippable Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity) and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) — they’ve lost their six-year-old daughter, and their attempts to find her drive Susie well beyond the point of grief and into a realm of maternal denial that is heartbreaking. And there’s Than (Samrit Machielsen), whose village is destroyed, and Nick (Tim Roth: Dark Water), a British journalist whose insouciance about the disaster gets slowly broken down into rage, and Kathy (Toni Collette: Little Miss Sunshine), an aid worker who finds her own reaction to the disaster unfathomable …

I’m deliberately not revealing too much about what the characters experience, because it is in the slow revelations of how deeply and sometimes how unexpectedly they find themselves reacting to what they have experienced that the profound poignancy of Tsunami is found. In Part I, it’s personal; by Part II, other, almost political responses come to the fore. Not in a way that turns the film — directed by Bharat Nalluri from a script by Abi Morgan — into a polemic or a salve for Western consciences like mine, who fret that movies about exotic lands only get produced when they feature rich Westerners, but in a way that connects all the characters — rich, poor, white, brown, Euro or Asian — in a way that strips away those surface qualities to lay bare the shared humanity beneath.

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