Still waters don’t run especially deep in Thai writer-director Anucha Boonyawatana’s The Blue Hour, an initially intriguing attempt to splice together a gay romance and a horror film that ultimately shows little flair for either genre. Although Boonyawatana constantly alludes to the hidden depths lurking within both the story’s schoolboy protagonist, Tam (Atthaphan Poonsawas), and the rundown swimming pool complex around which the plot revolves, his film remains stuck in the shallows, a rote, uneven drama unwilling to push beyond its many handsomely distressed surfaces. Atmosphere can only distract from lack of substance for so long.
The Blue Hour’s hushed opening certainly has atmosphere in spades, as Tam dusts himself down from a presumed beating, showers, and heads off to the abandoned yet still remarkably photogenic swimming pool where his older Internet date, Phum (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang), has suggested they meet for the first time. Upon emerging mysteriously from a back room artfully strewn with trash, Phum tells Tam that this place is haunted by the ghosts of those who drowned in the pool, before the two of them retire to the grimy changing rooms for a quick, passionate hand-job. As the nascent couple sit by the pool afterward, the serene setting already feels like a world apart, a sunlit dream world of concrete and tiling only broken up by occasional deposits of stubborn black grime, a visual harbinger of how the mood will later darken.
Darkness isn’t the only thing to encroach though, as a creeping sense of the clunky and the generic also begins to make its presence felt. The montage of pretty images of the pool that accompanies Phum’s tale of its history is so brief that it comes across like an indecisive afterthought, while one shot of Tam finding peace by shutting his eyes while under water and another of the happy pair riding a moped through the city are just two of the more prominent examples of the film’s penchant for stock festival-film imagery. The ambience is also repeatedly brought down to earth by the dialogue, whether in Tam and Phum’s dully predictable talk of bullying and coming out or in Tam’s later conversation with his worried mother (Duangjai Hirunsri), whose disapproving view of his sexuality is conveyed in a stream of clichés.
It’s only when Phum takes Tam to a vast garbage dump as beautifully rendered as the pool, where the bodies that are apparently dumped there don’t rest quietly, that horror finally casts a pall over the tame love story. Yet the mood is again broken by directorial clumsiness, most glaringly when Tam uncovers something horrifying among the trash that’s cleverly kept out of sight at first, before the tension rapidly dissipates once it’s inelegantly revealed a few shots later. With the film now juggling burgeoning love, family tension, and inexplicable dread, it becomes increasingly clear that Boonyawatana is unable to make any of the three take proper root. Phum and Tam’s relationship spins its wheels, one-note familial disapproval persists, and fear is generated only intermittently, as all the forbidding grime, constant talk of spirits, and frequent indications that what Tam is experiencing might be a dream are never given the sort of depth and context that might make these signifiers feel consequential and thus potentially frightening.
Although love, strife, and horror do eventually settle into some sort of alignment, the set of messages conveyed by their combination is hardly profound: repression generates aggression, there’s respite in tenderness, and endless stories of troubled souls can certainly invade your sleep. But while dreams obviously don’t always follow standard logic, invoking them to justify random plot shifts feels like an awfully convenient way of papering over the arbitrary. And if, as The Blue Hour’s sugary ending implies, it was indeed all just a dream, what’s the point in falling asleep in the first place? There are far less convoluted ways to arrive at the same obvious goal.