First published in Sight & Sound, September 2016
Synopsis: Laos, today. At a clinic near Vientiane, American volunteer John Lake is asked to take some time off after disobeying senior surgeon Stephanie Novella’s order to stop trying to resuscitate a young female patient who has died. John catches a ride with the clinic’s driver Douangmany to Vientiane, and then buses to the river island Don Khon. There John cautions Australian tourist Lachlan to stop plying young local woman Nang with alcohol, and later finds Nang in a state of unconsciousness and partial undress with Lachlan. In the ensuing tussle, Lachlan is killed. Awakened, Nang thinks John is the one who raped her. The following morning, as local police question him about Lachlan (who is the son of an Australian senator), John flees. Pursued by police, John heads back to Vientiane, where, after entering the US Embassy, he loses his nerve and runs. Douangmany offers to help John cross over to Thailand, provided John brings a bag of opium. In Thailand, John is arrested – but first manages to jettison the drugs. In prison he is informed that there was insufficient evidence for Thailand to extradite him to Laos, and that he is free – but when he learns, on his way to the airport to return to America, that Nang has taken the fall for Lachlan’s murder, he heads back to Laos.
Review: A likeable volunteer doctor working in a Non-Governmental Organisation outside Vientiane in Laos, John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) – note the watery surname – is what might be called a ‘Western do-gooder’. In the opening scenes of River, Jamie M. Dagg’s first feature as writer/director, John encourages a patient to lay off alcohol – and when a truckload of horrifically injured people arrives at the clinic, he keeps trying to resuscitate a young girl long after senior surgeon Dr Stephanie Novella (Sara Botsford) has declared her dead.
John’s insistence upon saving the girl at all costs places him in a long tradition of male heroes – and yet Stephanie points out that his insubordinate action has consequences, drawing time and attention away from other, still living trauma patients. Advised to take time off and consider his options, John heads south to the river island of Don Khon, where once again he will discourage excessive drinking, and try to save a girl. Only this time the girl has been raped, while unconscious, by the tourist Lachlan (Aidan Gillet) – and in the drunken tussle that ensues on the riverbank, John will cross a line and accidentally beat Lachlan to death. It is a messy situation. John is plainly guilty of homicide, and the girl, when she regains consciousness, mistakenly believes it was John who raped her. The fact that Lachlan is the son of an Australian senator only muddies the waters further. Finding himself chief suspect in a rape and murder case that local police are under pressure to resolve quickly, John will panic and go on the run.
Filmed in frenetic, often handheld tracking shots which keep closing in, like the forces of Laotian justice, on the would-be hero, River is a gripping fish-out-of-water thriller for as long as John keeps running – but Dagg also never loses track of John’s moral quagmires. When, near the end, John is given ‘no choice’ but to smuggle a bag full of destructive illegal drugs in return for help from the clinic’s driver Douangmany (played by Laotia’s most prolific producer Douangmany Soliphanh) to ford the Mekong into Thailand, it is clear that John is crossing an ethical as well as a geographical boundary. He may later be shown scrubbing and drying laundry in a prison, chastened by his experience, but his moral stain remains. In the closing scenes, John makes a snap decision to run again, only this time towards rather than away from responsibility. Surrounded significantly by Buddhist monks, he sets off once more to save the girl – although it is a heroic impulse that we have already twice before seen can lead to unforeseen and tragic consequences. Accordingly, Dagg ends his film without ever quite closing the narrative circle, leaving viewers to work their own way through the awkward questions raised here about the difficulty of doing good from a position of western (white, male) privilege. They are questions which may well have weighed on Dagg himself as he made what is the first North American film to be shot in the communist dictatorship of Laos. River is an impressive debut, offering no easy channel through its shifting, murky waters.
© Anton Bitel