In all the connections made and broken in Thai director Baz Poonpiriya’s Wong Kar-Wai-produced buddy film/romantic drama One for the Road, none are as complicated, toxic, and damaged as the turbulent brotherhood between its two central main characters—and that’s saying something.
One, perpetual bachelor Boss (Tor Thanapob), is a womanizing, chauvinistic, callous, and rich New York bartender who puts on a mask of confident and casual detachment to protect himself from the truth of his profoundly lonely and precarious lifestyle. The other, Boss’ best friend back home in Thailand, Aood (Ice Natara), is a passionate, hot-headed, jealous, and lonesome down-and-outer who discovers he’s afflicted with the same type of cancer that took his father’s life. Together, Boss and Aood represent a range of typical poisonous masculine philosophies. But One for the Road, among many other things, is a film about disassembling them.
Despite its virtues, One for the Road is destined to be dismissed on the basis of its admittedly hackneyed set-up: Aood summons Boss back to Thailand with the news that he’s dying and a request that Boss take him on a road trip around the country visiting all the ex-girlfriends he wronged before it’s too late to apologize. That journey comprises the first half of the film, in which Aood’s memories with three of his exes—a sweetheart dance instructor Alice (Ploi Horwang), a now-superstar actress Noona (Aokbab Chutimon), and a happily married photographer Roong (Noon Siraphun)—take control over the story.
Each of the women is complex and complete, and each reacts to Aood’s sudden appearance—he conceals his true purpose for visiting them—with different shades of nostalgia, animosity, and indifference. Alice says no to a meeting at first, but when she relents, she realizes she misses him; Noona, who Aood surprises on the set of a film, is irritated, angry, and firm in her rejection of his apparent contrition; Roong pretends to be out of town, and when Boss confronts her, she flatly states, “Why don’t you ask me if I want to see him?” You get the sense that these women are all too good for Aood, and they women know it.
In its first half, One for the Road is a road film in which every highway leads to the hollow disappointment of realizing forgiveness is no guarantee, mistakes can’t always be mended, and some people are much better without us in their lives.
But the story shifts tone and perspective when Aood reveals a crucial but inconvenient secret about Prim (Violette Wautier), the love of Boss’ life whom he left on grim terms years ago. This pivotal decision—the last of Aood’s major life confessions—cascades into a series of intense swings in narrative and character arcs, contorting the film’s saccharine clichés into something ultimately more personal and real.
Aood’s confession causes his and Boss’ fragile relationship to shatter, after which the memory of Prim, and the painful origins of the two mens’ friendship, grabs the focus. In the intimate flashbacks that follow, Boss is revealed to be a far more complicated character—meek, submissive, dependent, and introverted—who pairs perfectly with Prim, whose invulnerably sweet nature shields an independent spirit. As they progress, we begin to see that these memories tell the story of how Boss grew into his cynicism and why he misunderstands the reasons for his loneliness. We watch how easily life can be transformed by a lie or a secret, and how quickly the routine emotions of apathy and bitterness can take root.
beOne for the Road has a lot to say about the nuances of nostalgia as a regressive yearning for the past that, with real, productive intention, can be utilized to understand the present and ultimately make progress. Indeed, with introspection, the older Boss starts to consider a change. If the beginning of One for the Road is about Aood accepting the damage he’s done in the past, the ending is about the two friends acknowledging the importance and the weight of learning to be better.
Screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s World Dramatic Competition and winner of the category’s Special Jury Award for Creative Vision, One for the Road is hyperstylized melodrama at its glossiest, fueled by Western pop music and colorful mixed drinks. From the bars bathed in cloying neon to the sparkling classic car in which Aood and Boss embark on their adventure, everything in Poonpiriya’s world is staged with a seductive high-value sheen.
There are some remarkable flourishes both cinematographically—including a cocktail shaker-mounted camera—and narratively, such as when Aood spreads his father’s ashes and a smiling ghostly vision of him drives by in his own muscle car, or when Noona unloads two pistols during the filming of a film scene and the bullets appear to hit Aood. This approach may seem frivolous, but that kaleidoscopic flair only helps accent the explosive theatricality of the film’s drama.
Even still, the over-stylization starts to gradually calm down as the film floats into its second half. It’s only fitting that, as the characters begin to realize their own fatal pretensions, Poonpiriya tames the affected Hollywood luster and embraces genuine sentiment. One for the Road is both about and defined by its artificiality in that way, reflecting its characters’ macho artifice in its own self-assured swagger until both begin to wear down to the benefit of all involved.
Given its largely unlikable male leads and the fractured nature of its narrative, it’s understandable that some might find Poonpiriya’s film frustrating, disjointed, or unfocused, but that juxtaposition is what makes One for the Road such an effective story about self-discovery and growth. It’s an undeniably indulgent, extreme melodrama that gradually transforms into an emotionally rich romance, but it does both with polish and vibrant energy that is, at the very least, never boring.
Poonpiriya keenly recognizes the common rhythms of male friendships and doesn’t shy away from their more troubling truths. Like many of Wong Kar-Wai’s broken misfits, Aood and Boss are raw products of loneliness, but One for the Road illustrates that such loneliness can be a byproduct of the emotionally repressive constructs of masculinity. More importantly, it reveals an antidote: communication, emotional openness, and self-reflection. A spoonful of sugar, and all of that.