The date December 26th, 2004 would forever live in infamy for the millions of people living in countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. On that horrific day, the world could only watch helplessly when one of history's deadliest natural disasters swept across south and south-eastern Asia and even parts of Africa, killing approximately 300,000 people across many countries. Without warning, the massive Indian Ocean or Asian Tsunami, triggered by the second largest earthquake (magnitude 9.1 on the Richter scale) ever recorded, silently swept across the ocean in concentric circles and hitting the surrounding coastal areas hard with deadly waves that destroyed almost everything in its path. Looking at the photographs of the aftermath in areas hardest hit by the tsunami, one can't begin to imagine the massive force of destruction generated by the killer waves. Two of the areas that were hit the hardest by this disaster were the Indonesian island of Sumatra (near the epicenter of the quake) and the popular holiday resort island of Phuket in Thailand. It is in the northern resort beach of Khao Lak on Phuket that HBO located its 2006 2-part miniseries, "Tsunami: The Aftermath".
Another in an already long line of collaborative efforts between HBO and the BBC, "Tsunami: The Aftermath", as the title suggests, focuses on the events in the days immediately after the tsunami hit. The stories and characters that you come across in this miniseries may be fictional but they are mostly based on actual accounts by survivors. The show opens with the silhouette of Susie Carter (Sophie Okonedo) decked out in scuba gear, breaking the surface of the ocean as she emerges from its depths. Somewhat reminiscent of "Open Water", Sophie begins to panic when she does not catch sight of her diving boat. However, that passes quickly when we see a boat racing towards her. It is the morning of December 26th and Sophie had signed up for a diving excursion from her beach resort hotel the night before, leaving her husband, Ian (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and young daughter Martha (Jazmyn Maraso) back on shore.
Once on the boat, everyone confessed to an uneasy feeling that something was amiss. Actual eyewitness accounts noted that those out at sea did not really feel the impact of the massive waves as they raced toward shore. Those who were underwater at the time that the waves passed through did get knocked around but did not really know what it was that hit them. These facts are recreated here in this opening scene. As the boat approaches the beach, its occupants are met by the horrific sight of debris and dead bodies floating on the eerily calm ocean and the total destruction of the hotel's beachfront buildings that were in the direct path of the killer waves. Panic starts to set in as the people on the boat rush ashore and try desperately to find their loved ones among the massive amounts of debris littering the beach and the countless number of corpses.
This intense opening scene then cuts away to the day before, on Christmas Day, where we meet two British families, the Carters (whom I described earlier) and also the Peabodys, James (Owen Teale), Kim (Gina McKee), John (Morgan David Jones) and Adam (George MacKay), as they arrive to start their vacation in this small slice of paradise located on the edge of the beautiful Andaman Sea. We are also introduced to Than (Samrit Machielsen), a young local Thai who works as a waiter at the resort. It is not long before December 26th comes along and all hell breaks loose. Again, from eyewitness accounts, it all starts when the sea suddenly recedes hundreds of feet leaving dozens of fish flopping on the beach. This is recreated in the film and in minutes, the first giant wave rushes onto shore. In the ensuing commotion, Ian is swept away by the strong waves, leaving his young daughter Martha clinging on to the top of a coconut tree.
News of the tsunami hitting Phuket starts to trickle into the Thai capital of Bangkok. Reporter Nick Fraser (Tim Roth) is dispatched immediately, together with his Thai cameraman, Chai (Will Yun Lee), to Phuket to cover the tragedy. At about the same time, the British embassy in Bangkok also gets word of the calamity and its ambassador, Tony Whittaker (Hugh Bonneville), sets off for Phuket in order to assist the British citizens who may be trapped there. Accompanying him on his trek to Phuket is the always energetic but somewhat critical head of an NGO (non-governmental organization) helping Thai children with literacy issues, Kathy Graham (Toni Collette).
As the magnitude of the disaster slowly unfolds, we get to witness the aftereffects of the tragedy from the points of view of these different characters. We see Ian and Susie searching desperately for their missing daughter, Kim and Adam Peabody searching for Adam's father and older brother and Than mourning the death of his entire family. Whittaker arrives in Phuket but can't quite get a grip on the overwhelming situation as the death toll mounts and so many of the survivors to take care of.
DDespite its good intentions, I can't help but think this film should have done more by highlighting the immense suffering of the local Thai population instead of just a handful of foreigners who were there on vacation. Being a BBC production, it is not surprising that "Tsunami: The Aftermath" contains plenty of Anglo-centric bias, looking at the tragedy from a Westerner's point of view instead of from the local standpoint. Shot on location in Thailand, this miniseries, like most Western TV and movie productions, only treats the locals as extras and are merely peripheral to the main story, even though more Thais were killed in this catastrophe than the number of vacationing foreigners. The addition of Than's storyline helps but it only constitutes a minute blip in the overall scope of the tragedy. Faring better is Nick and Chai's portion of the film, as they try to uncover some of the lesser known stories like the immediate burning of corpses without first identifying them and the land grab by rich developers after the waves had destroyed entire villages that had stood there for generations.
Fictionalizing mega disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami or even 9/11 and producing a movie out of it can be more than a little tricky. First, you do not want to be seen as too eager to cash in on the tragedy that had befallen so many people and second, the movie has to somehow honor the memories of its victims. In a natural disaster such as this, blame cannot be cast upon any one party but one can surely take a critical look at the post-disaster response (or lack thereof). "Tsunami: The Aftermath" tries its best to do justice to the all parties involved but comes up just short on some accounts. It is near impossible to tell the stories of every victim and when writing for a movie, one has to choose the most interesting and prevailing storylines. In this case, writer Abi Morgan chooses to focus on the sufferings of a couple of British families and the underwhelming British government's response (as characterized by the Tony Whittaker character) to help its citizens. It is a shame that not more stories from a decidedly local Thai viewpoint could be added to this miniseries' 185-minute runtime.
This miniseries is presented in an anamorphic widescreen presentation measuring 1.85:1. In keeping with HBO's tradition of offering great video transfers, "Tsunami: The Aftermath" looks great on DVD. One would be hard pressed to find any flaw in its presentation, from the vivid colors and natural skin tones to the excellent level of detail even in dark lighting situations. Subtitle options include English, Spanish and French.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is serviceable. There is nothing remarkable about it because the sound design is such that the surround effects are kept to a minimum and the nature of the dramatic story propagates a dialogue-heavy style that focuses most of the audio in the front three channels and with very little LFE effects. As such, the dialogue parts are clear without any hint of distortion. Also available is a Spanish language Dolby Surround 2.0.
This 2-disc DVD set offers only a couple of short documentaries on Disc 2. The first, a featurette titled "The Story Behind the Film" is one of those behind-the-scenes segments that features interviews with the cast and crew as they talk about the movie and the impact of disaster and how it is presented here. The second segment is called "Recreating Nature's Fury" and it looks at how the crew tries to recreate, as best they can, the devastation left behind by the tsunami, through the use of photographs from the actual disaster.
"Tsunami: The Aftermath" features a pair of really outstanding performances from Sophie Okonedo and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the emotional and grieving parents looking for their lost daughter. In fact, the entire cast delivers some solid performances that convey the deep emotional impact such a large scale disaster can have on ordinary people. It is only in the story department that this miniseries fall slightly short. This is, after all, a BBC production, and naturally the spotlight would fall on the British tourists caught in the middle of the disaster. For all its good intentions, this film does make an effort to also touch on the suffering of the Thai people as well. However, that part seemed a little contrived to make much of an impact.