Dir. Oxide Pang Chun, 2003, Thailand, 96 mins
Cast: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Saskia Reeves, Alexander Rendel
Loosely based on Alex Garland's follow-up novel to The Beach, director Oxide Pang (one half of the duo that brought you the nerve-jangler The Eye) attempts to put together a Memento style puzzler with slick Hong Kong action. The stories of four characters converge during their stay at the Heaven Hotel in Bangkok, the first major change from the book where the setting was Manila. Sean (Rhys-Meyers) is a frazzled drug runner constantly on tenterhooks waiting for his contact to call while in the room below a failed assassin bleeds to death after a mission gone wrong. Also checking in is the British psychiatrist Rosa (Reeves) who films streets kids talking about their dreams and has involved the bellboy Whit (Rendel), a thief who makes the most of his job by rummaging through customers rooms. What brings them together is a lump of heroin Sean is tasked with delivering and, it not being a friendly business he's involved with, men with guns are sure to add a few problems.
Let's face it The Tesseract was never going to live up to the heady success The Beach garnered but it did at least have some originality in the way it took several unrelated stories and brought them together in the closing pages. In adapting the book Pang has obviously had to cut a few corners and rather than having a whole city to play with he's limited the action to centre around one seedy motel. Where the book had an air of serendipity the film feels forced, of course the characters are going to bump into each other, they all live under the same roof. What the story boils down to is more a comedy of errors in the style of Blame it on the Bellboy but with Taiwanese gangsters promising violence rather than fun hi-jinx.
What's missing is the drawn out back-story that successfully enhanced the novel, especially Rosa who was a local girl still dreaming of her first love back when she was sixteen. The screenplay misses these nuances and leaves us with strung-out stereotypes that we can't wait to get their just deserts. Rhys-Meyers fleshes out what's essentially a villain role with desperate, dangerous force but what should be the audience's emotional core in the mother-son relationship between Rosa and Whit falls flat thanks to the rather too mumsy Reeves who looks like a primary school teacher on an extended field trip. This being Pang's first English feature he can be let off for some of the more heavy-handed philosophising shoe-horned into the movie that borders on laughably hammy, as Rosa says to Whit "Your life is like a ring road."
With the character's feeling secondary it can only be assumed that Pang wanted to try his hand a putting together a successful thriller in the vein of recent Hollywood head screws but with a story that really only has one big showdown he's forced to cram in other action moments for the sake of excitement and these usually form part of a fantasy sequence. Yes they look pretty cool, as the promised Matrix bullet-time tears through the screen during the film's opening, but when they have so little to do with the plot you have to say that Pang is really treading water, waiting for the big pay-off.
Given an opportunity Pang pulls-off some great camera trickery and goes head to head with Darren Aaronofsky's Requiem for a Dream in terms of jump cuts, speeded up photography and general frayed edginess but without any investment in the characters it simply comes off as an advert for the director's pop video style. With more thought into the layout of the various plot strands it could have appealed to audiences already well educated with films such as Memento , Donnie Darko , even Magnolia did the same thing but managed it without slo-mo gunfights. Hopefully it's a movie not indicative of Asian cinema becoming lazy and thinking we'll buy anything but we can at least be safe in the knowledge that Garland only wrote two books.