By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The two people on the beach at the beginning of “Wish You Were Here” are white and attractive, though iridescently so. They look healthy enough — normal enough. They’re wistful, though a little tired. The sand gleams underneath them. They ask themselves where they would go if they could go anywhere and stay there forever. The man thinks he’d be happiest forever right where he is. The woman thinks that’s slightly odd.
As the film gets underway, it cuts back and forth in time. Part of it takes place in the past, around the two people with their beach towels. We eventually learn that they’re Australian tourists on holiday at Sihanoukville, a port city in Cambodia. Named after former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk, the place isn’t quite as popular as several destinations in nearby Thailand, but it has enough beaches and natural beauty to bring in a fair share of tourists.
Four young Australian actors and actresses sign on for a stretch at Sihanoukville: Joel Edgerton as Dave Flannery; Felicity Price (who also co-wrote the script with director Kieran Darcy-Smith) as Dave’s wife Alice; Teresa Palmer as Alice’s younger sister Steph McKinney; and Antony Starr as Jeremy King.
As the action saws back and forth in time, we see the four getting ready to leave for Cambodia. Dave and Alice have two kids and a third on the way. They aren’t sure if they should spend money on this trip, but they’re swayed by Steph and the mysterious Jeremy King. Rendered vividly by Starr, King is a man with a ready smile and an easy manner. Handsome and just a touch slick, he seems to have a ready explanation for everything, but he also always seems to be holding something back. Something important.
Cambodia itself, at least the aspects of it represented by Sihanoukville, becomes an important character in the film. An early montage shoves sensations of Sihanoukville at the viewer, stressing the exotic and disconcerting. Large flies crawl across still-twitching fish. A small snake, coiled and stuck on a stick, becomes a snack. The Australian foursome greet these sensations with mixed feelings.
As Cambodia asserts its own character, the foursome seem increasingly lost within it. One of them goes missing, leaving the other three scrambling for an explanation. The film isn’t simply a matter of foreigners romping merrily with lots of money to spend and little respect for local ways. Once home, the three remaining tourists still have secrets to hide but Cambodia, calling to them across the ocean, does not wish them to keep those secrets.
Joel Edgerton, an Australian actor who’s made a name for himself in the “Star Wars” films and the American martial-arts film “Warrior,” has the challenging assignment of holding together the action, as he struggles to keep whole the rapidly-spinning, disintegrating situation. He’s made mistakes, but the audience must buy into him as likeable to support the action. He ably holds everything up on his own shoulders.
The film goes past pretty-postcard visions of Cambodia , and its climactic scenes will make some wish they never learn the solution to the mystery. This is a price the tourists pay for their sometimes-unacknowledged sensations of superiority. The story challenges us to think about what we think about other cultures, and anything outside our immediate experience, in general. (end)
“Wish You Were Here” opens Friday, June 21 at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes call 206.781.5755 or check local listings.
Andrew Hamlin can be contacted at email@example.com.