J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 20, 2016

River: The Fugitive in Laos

You have to feel for the consular officers who will be forced to work on Dr. John Lake’s case. The American doctor is wanted in Laos for the murder of an Australian senator’s entitled son and the rape of a local. Unfortunately, a one-armed man was not seen fleeing the scene of the crime. Lake more or less dispatched the ugly Australian, but everything else was the dead man’s handiwork. Due to the victim’s misunderstanding, Lake opts to make a desperate run for the Thai border in Jamie M. Dagg’s River (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lake was volunteering with a medical NGO, but his supervisor sent him off on two weeks leave following the triage work they did for a truckload of accident victims. He decides to visit the picturesque southern islands in the Mekong River Delta, as do two hard-partying Australian lads. Lake tried to dissuade them from plying the petite Nang Chanh with liquor, but he has no qualms about partaking himself. Later drunkenly stumbling over the unconscious girl and her predator, Lake sort of snaps. Rather inconveniently the girl comes to just in time to misconstrue Lake’s blood stains.

Ordinarily, taking flight is a very bad idea, especially sans passport and cash. However, it is tough to blame him in Laos, a state still ruled by a Communist regime, where trials are considered a formality and executions are an inevitability. In fact, it makes you wonder why he is there is the first place. Regardless, Lake’s crisis disperses any wishful thinking he might have had, which leads to full galloping panic.

In fact, River should jolly well dissuade most viewers from visiting Laos, just as Midnight Express probably temporarily depressed Turkish tourism. Still, the humid delta and surrounding rainforests are an evocative locale. Cinematographer Adam Marsden makes gives the film an appropriately swelteringly noir look, while Dagg nicely compounds the tension of being a fugitive in a foreign land.

As Lake, Rossif Sutherland (terrific in Hyena Road and not bad in Helions) is convincingly sweaty, but his performance largely confines itself to a narrow zone of guilt and paranoia. At least the dependably cool Vithaya Pansringarm offers some charismatic support as the friendly bartender who befriends Lake that fateful night. It is a comparatively small supporting role, but Pansringarm is apparently incapable of being dull on-screen.

All things considered, River is quite fair to the Laotians. In fact, Dagg really should have more fully explained why standing trial in Laos for a crime you did not commit is such a perilous proposition. It is also seems rather strange Lake and his NGO boss are Americans, considering River is a Canadian production, helmed by a Canadian filmmaker, featuring several Canadian cast-members (Sutherland, as well as Sara Botsford, Ted Atherton, and Karen Glave—the latter two playing U.S. Foreign Service Officers). Regardless, Dagg gives viewers a pungent sense of the region and ends on a graceful note. Recommended as a future video pick, River opens this Friday (6/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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