A slick blend of supernatural chiller and teen thriller, The Swimmers is an effective suspense piece from writer-director Sophon Sakdaphisit, who scripted the breakout Thai horror Shutter (2004) before stepping behind the camera with Coming Soon (2008) and Laddaland (2011). As with his Sakdaphisit’s earlier films, The Swimmers has ghost story elements, but here the plot revolves more around such mystery staples as lust, jealousy and growing suspicion as the circumstances surrounding an apparent schoolgirl suicide are gradually revealed to be far more sinister than a simple case of adolescent heartbreak.
High school swim team stars Perth (Chutavuth Pattarakampol) and Tan (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) are friendly rivals: the former trains diligently while the latter has a more natural talent, with their regular competitive races putting both in contention for a prestigious university place. They also have their eyes set on the same romantic trophy, fellow student Ice (Supassra Thanachat), who is dating Tan but drifts towards the seemingly sensitive Perth when she tires of her boyfriend’s arrogant manner. This love triangle has tragic consequences as Ice takes her own life by jumping from the pool’s diving board after the facility has been drained: a distraught Tan quits swimming, while Perth starts winning races in his absence and hooks-up with the flirtatious Mint (Violette Wautier), but is haunted by visions of Ice.
Not knowing that Perth was Ice’s other lover, a vengeful Tan tries to identify the person who may have prompted her suicide, a self-assigned mission that intensifies when he learns that his ex-girlfriend was pregnant at the time of her death. This is where the shocks kick-in as the haunted Perth comes to believe he is now carrying Ice’s baby as flashbacks reveal that he had tried to arrange an abortion. “Hey Perth, your six-pack is now a one-pack”, jokes a student who notices that the current champion is developing a bulge, leading Perth to cover-up his belly with loose zip-up tops while he finds a way to deal with his predicament. There’s an unsubtle safe sex message here as the title not only refers to the sporting activity on display but the sperm that have caused Perth’s problems as a consequence of him not carrying protection. However, the crafty manner in which Sakdaphisit sets up the audience to side with the sneakily manipulative Perth over the crusading Tan prevents The Swimmers from becoming a thinly-disguised public service announcement.
The characters are fairly complex by youth movie standards with Sakdaphisit picking away at Perth’s nice guy image to reveal a self-centered personality with great concern about how he is perceived by others: in an early scene, he scans down his Facebook page, ‘liking’ the comments that friends have made about his recent race victory, then deleting a post that states he only won because Tan was not competing. Tan, the kind of brooding outsider who would be equally suitable as the main protagonist in an alternative telling of the story, is prone to vicious taunts, while the socially savvy Mint flits between potential winners, keen to attach herself to whoever’s star seems to be on the rise.
In his efforts to ensure a sufficient scare quotient, Sakdaphisit relies too heavily on repetitive jump tactics – something is lurking behind Perth, no it’s not, yes it is, cue the loud music – but pulls off some creepy sequences, such as Perth hiding under Ice’s bed when the bereaved mother comes in to ‘talk’ to her daughter. He also creates, and sometimes merges, the three distinct looks of the underwater environment of the pool, the daily routines of home and school, and the spirit world which occasionally makes the film quite disorientating, although the general glossiness of the production indicates that it is primarily aimed at the local youth market. Still, even with its emphasis on romantic entanglements and toned bodies, The Swimmers is a smartly constructed thriller with a greater measure of moral ambiguity than is usually found in such teen-baiting genre fare.