Wong Kar-wai doesn’t produce films often, but when he does, they’re not like his own. For what it’s worth, One for the Road isn’t like a Baz Poonpiriya movie either, but with only two films under his belt coming in – a chamber horror and an academic crime caper – he has yet to establish a particular style, and it appears he’s exploring what that style may be. Regardless, after three completely different projects, it’s safe to say Poonpiriya doesn’t want to be boxed in as a specific kind of filmmaker, much like his iconic producer.
One for the Road follows Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) and Aood (Ice Natara), best friends who had a falling out years prior in New York City, after which Aood moved back to their home country, Thailand. Boss remained in New York, living it up as a ladies’ man in his penthouse apartment funded by his loaded family back home and crafting exquisite drinks for high-paying customers in dimly lit speakeasy lounges. Together, the two friends shared a dream of opening a sleek bar and slinging artisan cocktails in the Big Apple, but, as the many flashbacks inform, problems arose, and when I say problems, I mean girlfriends. Yes, like Scott Pilgrim.
When our leads reconnect in the opening act, Poonpiriya has already begun pulling heartstrings. Aood beckons Boss to return home for a final, literal drive down memory lane to revisit his four ex-girlfriends before cancer overtakes his body and the opportunity vanishes. Obliterated by the news, Boss hops on a plane, and next thing we know, we’re zipping through the gorgeous green country in a crème-colored vintage Beamer that will satisfy your most luxurious mid-century modern appetite.
One for the Road squeezes several subgenres into its unwieldy (for a Sundance movie, at least) runtime, the decade-spanning narrative leaving room for all kinds of expression in the immense ground it covers. At the outset, it oscillates between buddy comedy, meditative drama, and road trip adventure. Eventually, it works in metaphorical fantasy violence, tender romance, and family upheaval. But ultimately, One for the Road ends up being more soap opera than anything, and that happens to be its major flaw.
As the past is colored in through flashbacks, Boss and Aood’s joint journey adopts a corny, sour flavor that begins to taste more manipulative than earned, a la the poverty porn of Dan Fogelman, though Poonpiriya is savvy enough to keep viewers from This Is Us levels of trauma-building. However, it seems he didn’t quite know how to end his story and, as a result, he let cliché take the reins, adding on an entirely unaddressed act halfway through that becomes the long stretch (the entire second half) to the end when it would be better off as the finish line.
The camera movement throughout is incredibly dynamic. Cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun pulls a new trick every few minutes in his visually stunning style. The Western-pop-laden soundtrack gives kinetic energy to the pace, and the smoky, elegant jazz music that the movie always settles back into transitions viewers seamlessly in and out of different moods, even if those moods end up feeling forced at times.
The two friends bounce from one Aood ex to the next – a dancer, actor, mother (not his), and mystery, respectively – and as their stories unfold it becomes clear that the girlfriends were rarely the guys’ problem; rather, Aood and/or Boss were the girlfriends’ problem. But this isn’t a film about pointing fingers. Poonpiriya means to explore the vast expanse of possibilities that encapsulate the act of saying goodbye for good. From the torture of silence to the contentment of a last dance to the anticipated unveiling of long-held lies, there is no easy way to say goodbye. Herein lies the film’s greatest strength: the yearning it creates, finds, or resurrects in you for connection and reconciliation.
There is a slew of delicious cocktail-making montages that range from sensual to emotional to comical, but all of them will leave you desperately wanting not necessarily the drink so much as the night out with friends or lovers that lands it in front of you and makes the cocktail worth drinking. As Boss says, “A bar is not a place. It’s a bartender.” Poonpiriya uses the alchemical nature of cocktails to draw out our own memories over drinks and suggest another recipe for repair: humility, apology, patience.
So much of One for the Road will leave a pandemic-stricken world in heartache, fawning even for the heat of in-person conflict with friends and family who have had to remain at a distance. Poonpiriya distills that heartache five times into the purest, most intoxicating pain one can imbibe from the comfort of their couch, be it the pain of bastardized friendships or lovelorn loss. It’s not hard to recognize ourselves in the lies, the complexity of relationships, and the tendencies to dwell on the past. But, while well-worth the watch, it does become hard to stomach it after two hours and sixteen minutes.