Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So – a Thai slang term for ‘high society’ – presents an alluring glimpse of Thailand from the intimate perspectives of quietly privileged twenty-somethings. By focusing simply on three characters’ outlooks, Hi-So constructs a pleasant portrait of modern-day Thailand and facilitates an exploration of the effects of globalisation on a human scale.
We track Ananda (Ananda Everingham) filming his first starring role in Thailand, fresh from a stint studying abroad in the US. He lives a charmed life, unburdened by financial responsibilities and able to freely drift between Thai and Western cultures; his only difficulty is managing companionship in this rarefied, liminal space. When his American girlfriend Zoe (Cerise Leang) comes to visit him, their old dynamic does not fit into their new surroundings, and she exits his life. Then when filming wraps, Ananda’s attentions turn to May (Sajee Apiwong), a Thai film PR. They easily live together in Ananda’s family’s apartment building in Bangkok, but as time goes on, they discover limits to their relationship. While the camera’s gaze drifts from one character’s story to another, the constant is each person’s struggle to bridge culture- and/or class-based gaps.
Full disclosure: I’m Filipino-American, studied abroad in Europe and have traveled widely. So this film resonates with me personally, since it’s preoccupied with cultural clashes that result from living/traveling abroad while depicting a Southeast Asian country from a non-touristy perspective. (Interesting fact: Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country to never be colonised.) I often get frustrated with narratives that romanticise the locals and the landscapes with naive detachment, so for me, Hi-So provides a welcome viewpoint in a way that’s accessible to both Westerners and Thai people.
Thailand is depicted in a realistic, objective way – the views of palm trees and beach resorts are idyllic but have no hazy golden glow, lit only by natural white light. The effects of the 2004 tsunami still linger, debris haunting once-posh buildings. We actually hear the sounds of tropical animals and wind instead of romantic scoring. The humidity has a subtly languorous effect on everyone and everything. The circumstances of the locals are given voice; class differences and mobility across borders – money to travel, access to visas or study abroad opportunities – aren’t taken for granted in this film. It’s a blessedly far cry from the stylised depiction of Thailand in The Hangover: Part 2, which was chock full of offensive stereotypes and exotification.
Hi-So most notably portrays language barriers and the isolation you experience when encountering them, when you can hear what’s being said but can’t understand; the film perfectly captures how trust and power balances shift when translation is involved. Ananda is the only one with access to both worlds, while all the other characters onscreen, particularly Zoe and May, aren’t as fortunate as us in the audience, who have subtitles. For me, it was also particularly validating to see onscreen how female foreigners with limited voices are easily objectified. Photo-taking is much more intrusive when there are cultural gaps, whether you’re the tourist or the local.
The charm of Hi-So is its candid, un-glorified depiction of young adults in a place often simplified to be paradise. The film meanders without being judgemental, much like the ambivalent, mildly curious youth that it features. A benign sense of ennui pervades the film, occasionally too aimlessly; the result is an un-formulaic mood piece that sometimes lags, but is always thoughtful and honest in its exploration of modern Thailand’s character. It’s my hope that those who see this film, whether they care about these characters or not, at least become more sensitive travellers and perhaps develop better insight into life in worlds beyond the West.
Hi-So is in cinemas 1 March via Day For Night