Tsunami Revisited: Stories and Recovery for Today
A review of the upcoming film “The Impossible” through the eyes of a disaster recovery philanthropist.
“The Impossible” is a new film based on a true story of a Spanish family vacationing in Khao Lak, Thailand, during the 2004 tsunami—a disaster that claimed 230,000 lives. In US theaters this Friday, the movie sheds light on one of the worst natural disasters of our time through the lens of the Belon family—a husband and wife, and their three sons. It is an exercise in empathy, and a must-see film for the visceral experience, for reflection on impermanence and gratitude, and for the disaster preparedness kits that will result.
Full disclosure: I watched the movie and interviewed Director Juan Antonio Bayona as a student of the 2004 tsunami, not a film critic. I supported the recovery effort and, earlier this year, launched the TsunamiPlus10 project, an exploration of the legacy of this seminal disaster. As such, I am biased about the film's power to spark renewed interest and learning around the tsunami on its 8th anniversary, as well as eager to provide greater context for the story.
A Tsunami Relived
The most intense 20 minutes of “The Impossible” are from the perspective of a tsunami survivor, and the action accurately matches first-hand accounts. The audience journeys through a black void of endless water, not knowing which way is up or down, and suffers injury upon injury as they rush through a landscape of debris, clinging to wreckage and trees and fearing the next wave.
Mr. Bayona paints the scope and horror of the disaster exceedingly well. But at its heart, the film is a family coming of age story. In particular, the disaster upends the traditional relationship between mother (Maria, played by Naomi Watts) and son (Lucas, played by Tom Holland)—among other traumas, Lucas confronts Maria’s mortality. The plot prioritizes this mother-son survival story, and both actors have already received award nominations.
Beyond the Belons: of Tourists and Thais
The filmmaker’s biggest decision, and what has perhaps thus far kept “The Impossible” from a best picture nomination, is that this important story is wholly bounded by the Belons. We get their story, but it made me wonder: If a greater role were given to Thai players, would that have heightened the contrast between tourist and resident, survival and loss?
Any human standing on the beach during the tsunami would be subjected to the wave’s mauling and primal moments of survival. Tourist or Thai would receive aid, and everyone would benefit from what turned out to be a very effective response from the Thai public health system (which, incidentally, limited mortality to 0.3 percent among those treated). In this way, the Belons’ story is relevant to all.
What is only superficially explored, however, is a fundamental tension: This is a film about Western tourists, who represent just 4 percent of all tsunami deaths and a much smaller percentage of the injured.
The film does add nuance within the world of the Belons when it contrasts tourist with tourist: Some help each other and share dying cell phones; others demand to see hotel management to expedite their escape. But the Thai experience is seen only in passing, and Thais appear only in background roles.
Mr. Bayona attributes this to his respect for the enormity of the Thai story and his core focus on the family, but I would have liked to see more. Certainly, Thai points of view would daylight themes personally important to the director, including the generosity and sacrifice of Thai survivors and first-responders, who put their own searches for loved ones on hold to help others and to do their jobs.
At its riskiest, a true supporting Thai character might add something new to our tsunami experience on top of its universality—cultural difference and real loss.
The film intimately shares the pain, suffering, and transformation of survival (another of the director’s goals). It sat with me for a long time. But while it shows the loss that is happening all around the family, it’s hard to feel that greater loss.
What would “The Impossible” be like if, say, the first person Maria and Lucas meet as they head inland was a Thai boy instead of another tourist? Let’s name him Samut. He goes with Maria to the hospital. Like the tourist character of Daniel, he may even be reunited with a parent there.
From there, the realities diverge for the tourist and the boy growing up in Khao Lak. Perhaps one of Samut’s parents didn’t survive. More likely than not, his home is destroyed, with all his belongings. If Samut’s father was a fisherman, or a resort employee, his livelihood is gone. His school is damaged. He’s almost certainly lost friends and extended family. His life remains dark and upside down, still caught in the wake of the tsunami.
“The Impossible” is an invaluable entry point for revisiting the 2004 tsunami. I am surprised it was even made, and it is a labor of love for cast and crew, who recall the emotion of shooting in Thailand, filming at the rebuilt hotel, and incorporating survivors.
What I would love to see is that care for Thailand made explicit in its characters, as well as a nod to the predominant local experience of the tsunami that day.
When Maria is impossibly reunited with her husband and two of her boys, in bad shape and heading into her second surgery, she wonders “Am I dead?” What this remarkable movie only hints at is that for so many throughout Thailand and regions that border the Indian Ocean, death would in fact be the only reunion possible.
It’s a complex movie and part of a complex, tragic story that echoes in Thai communities and others today. Take a look at TsunamiPlus10’s viewer’s guide and mini-documentary, which we created for people interested in a fuller picture of the disaster, as well as related philanthropic and relief efforts.