I went to see The Impossible yesterday at its first showing on its first day in Seattle. I had a reason to be there, rather than waiting for it to be available on Netflix as I usually do. I had a very dear friend who was caught in that wave and survived it. When I saw him three months later, the wounds on his body were turning to scars, he was moving through life in his usual fashion, but he was still in shock.
I've been obsessed with the tsunami of 2004. I've wanted to know in some small way what my friend had gone through. The Impossible showed me--not everything but more than enough.
My friend was Thai. His experience was illustrated by the experience of a blonde, white woman. Does that make a difference? Hell, no. The replication of the terrible sound of the wave, the horror of being wrapped in water, knowing that death is certain, the objects being hurled against flesh by the force of the wave, coming out of that envelope of ocean to find survival, pain, devastation, death, dying, injured--in a place that had been idyllic minutes before--this movie added a hideous reality to the story that was told to me and that I've retold many times. Whether the story is told by a western woman or a Thai man, it is still the same sound, the same terror, the same pain. It is not, as the movie reviewer said in the Seattle Times, "a very, very bad vacation." The "verisimilitude to actual disaster" in The Impossible is not, as another Seattle reviewer said, "a feat of dubious distinction."
Nearly 300,000 people died in that tsunami; the number of survivors is uncountable. In Thailand, much of the coast that was struck is prime resort territory which is heavily populated by Europeans during the holiday season. The death toll in the Kingdom consisted of many, many bodies. The skin color of corpses, if it matters at all, was often white. The body bags shown in the movie were filled with dead skin waiting to go home--does it matter where that was?
For the survivors the aftermath that a Seattle reviewer writes off as "a surfeit of sentiment" was very real. Ewan McGregor's search for his wife and son was mirrored by the same search conducted by my friend's mother, when she went to Phuket to find her son and bring him home. She had never flown in her life but Thai Airways gave free flights for people looking for their surviving family and brought her from Bangkok to Phuket. She searched hospital beds until she found her son. The only difference is she had language to help her in her search. Many people who looked for their families didn't speak Thai, were in a country where they knew nobody, and were in shock themselves. Is this, as the reviewer said, "the wrong story well told?"
If I hadn't known and loved someone who had the story that's told in The Impossible, I would never have gone to it. I don't suggest that anyone else does, unless they have some sort of link to the 2004 tsunami. But if you do go, look beyond skin color or "privilege." Salute the people of Thailand who went to the coast and volunteered to help survivors, take care of the wounded, and identify bodies. This isn't just one family's story; open your eyes and ears.