‘One for the Road’ Review: Old Friends Drink and Drive in Wong Kar Wai-Produced Thai Melodrama

The overloaded Thai equivalent of one of those YA weepies where terminally ill teens scramble to fulfill their bucket lists before expiring at a young age, all-the-feels buddy movie “One for the Road” is determined to leave audiences both shaken and stirred. Your mileage may vary as director Baz Poonpiriya (“Bad Genius”) packs this concoction with a lifetime’s worth of romances, breakups and reconciliations; a cancer diagnosis; a cheek-tweakingly adorable kid; all sorts of overdue apologies; several family surprises; and one of those scenes where the music swells as someone’s ashes are scattered to the winds.

Seeing so many emotions squeezed into 137 minutes surely explains why Sundance Film Festival programmers picked this broadly appealing international selection as one of half a dozen films to screen on opening night of the 2021 virtual edition. Well, that and the fact it was produced by Wong Kar Wai, whose blessing gives this slick but soap-operatic melodrama added cachet with art-house crowds — assuming that art houses reopen in time to host its release. Audience reactions will depend on their threshold for skillful manipulation, eased considerably by an unexpected maturity that surfaces in the film’s twist-filled second half.

Poonpiriya, who is reportedly collaborating with “Crazy Rich Asians” director John M. Chu on a Thai cave rescue project for Netflix, clearly knows how to push an audience’s buttons, to the extent that signing on for “One for the Road” is like stepping aboard a high-rise elevator knowing it will be making stops at all 30 floors. Early on, Poonpiriya appears to be working overtime to get a reaction, opening with teary-eyed 30-something Aood (Ice Natara) sitting behind the wheel of a vintage BMW, contacting all the names saved in his phone to tell them he has leukemia, then deleting each entry after he calls.

But for old friend Boss (Tor Thanapob), he has a special request: Aood calls the New York-based bartender, who’s spent the past decade seducing practically every pretty woman who crosses his path, and asks him to fly back to Thailand for a road trip. Aood aims to visit his ex-girlfriends in person, and he wants Boss to accompany him. Boss owes him a favor (the reason is one of the film’s many twists) and reluctantly agrees, tagging along for a series of too-cute (and frankly, somewhat confusing) reunions. Poonpiriya and editor Chonlasit Upanigkit cut between these meetings and memories of the couple’s relationship, teasing the multiple timelines that will play out over the rest of the film while hiding a key piece of information: how and when these two friends met.

First, there’s Alice (Ploi Horwang), a free-spirited dancer with bright red hair; followed by Noona (Aokbab Chutimon), an aspiring actor who made it big after they broke up; and finally, Roong (Noon Siraphun), a photographer Aood met while living in New York. Poonpiriya engineers these meetings to trigger strong feelings in the audience, effectively juxtaposing the excitement of a budding relationship with the pain of knowing how it ended.

To his credit, the director (who co-wrote the script with Nottapon Boonprakob and Puangsoi Aksornsawang) refrains from having Aood tell his exes that he’s dying. Instead, Aood uses each reunion to return some special object the girlfriend left behind. It’s a clever strategy on Poonpiriya’s part, as these items become charged with a kind of sentimental energy, which deepens when the film sees fit to fill in their individual backstories.

Like the Boss character, who dreams of opening a bar, the director positions himself as a master mixologist, serving up drinks so powerful that they spark deep emotional reactions in whoever’s sipping. At one point, Boss pours photogenic craft cocktails named after these encounters. Later, the last drink, Chemotherapy, tastes bitter, we’re told.

But Poonpiriya doesn’t stop there, playing DJ as well via a parallel soundtrack of (mostly English-language) pop songs aired by Aood’s radio-host dad, embodied by popular Thai actor, musician and “Bad Genius” star Thaneth Warakulnukroh, whose casting adds an emotional kick for local audiences (the equivalent of Tom Waits or Willie Nelson making a cameo). It’s not until Aood has listened to his final broadcast, featuring Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” that he can delete “Dad” from his dwindling contacts list.

None of this has been especially subtle, although it’s here, at roughly the midway point, that the movie pivots into more nuanced territory, confirming what most audiences will have anticipated all along: that it’s no coincidence Aood picked Boss to be his wingman on the journey. The movie has a sly way of setting up our expectations, only to subvert them later, and from this point on, the reversals come with shocking rapidity. In fact, Poonpiriya so frequently undermines the movie’s premises that it would be fair to wonder whether Aood even has cancer at all (the final scenes don’t exactly dispel this question).

But it’s the introduction of a character named Prim, played by Violette Wautier, that transforms “One for the Road” from being a second-rate “50/50” (for those who remember the 2011 buddy movie in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt was determined to beat cancer) into something entirely its own. Once Prim appears, it stops mattering whether leukemia was merely a convenient plot device, since the self-absorbed Boss finally becomes a character we can care about.

To say much more might spoil the surprise, although it’s worth crediting Wautier with making Prim more than just another pixie-dream-girl fantasy. The character has dreams of her own, and in the end, it’s seeing those fulfilled that resonates more than the state of these dudes’ bucket lists.