Friday, September 26, 2008

BKKIFF '08 review: Soi Cowboy


  • Written and directed by Thomas Clay
  • Starring Nicolas Bro, Pimwalee Thampanyasan
  • Reviewed on September 25, 2008, Asian Premiere at Bangkok International Film Festival
  • Rating: 5/5
What's strange about watching the movie Soi Cowboy in Thailand is that it takes a moment to adjust to the background noises.

The first half of the film mainly takes place inside the Bangkok apartment a portly farang is sharing with his tiny Thai girlfriend. It's morning and the whistles are chirping. That's right, the whistles -- the non-stop cacophony of parking-lot guards and traffic policemen tweeting on their noisemakers. When the movie first started, I was thinking I was hearing the noise of the cinema's carpark. I wondered how long the sounds had been there before I noticed, and pretty soon, I guess I forgot they were even there.

Such is life in Bangkok. And that's the point of the opening half of Soi Cowboy. The mismatched couple goes through their morning routine. He wakes up, turns in bed to his girlfriend and looks at her hopefully. Her back is turned toward him and she appears to still be sleeping. He gets out of bed and starts to shuffle around. She gets out of bed and shuffles around. He takes note, and looks at her hopefully. He takes a shower -- with the door open, so we all can see. She makes rice and has breakfast -- doesn't invite him to eat. Then he makes some toast and has some peanut butter on it.

Oh, and by the way, his tiny Thai girlfriend is sporting a big baby bump. But at 5' 2", she probably still weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. It's a study in contrasts -- she is beautiful and dusky skinned. He is perhaps 6' 4", 300 pounds of hellish misery, with pasty, splotchy skin.

It's beautiful and poignant, yet all horrifyingly mundane and infinitely sad. But, it's a note-for-note reproduction of how day-to-day life can be for the average expat resident.

How long can it go on? How long can the guy, Tobias, endure? And how about when that baby comes? What then, Tobias? But he's not thinking that far ahead. The woman is looking to the future, though, even if she really doesn't like this great Dane she's hooked up with.

I could give a blow-by-blow account of what all happens, but to do that takes the fun out of this movie. I will say it involves an iPod, Wagner, a noisy videogame, Sukhumvit Road, Viagra, dodgy arthouse-movie DVDs, MBK, an 18-karat gold bracelet, a train and a trip to Ayutthaya. Oh, and an elderly farang woman with a walker in an elevator.

And then the movie changes. From the dull, monochrome world of Bangkok and an all-mod-cons apartment, the scene shifts to blazing, brightly colors and the wooden shack house of the countryside.

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the director of photography for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, manages the very low-key lighting beautifully and poetically.

Life is still pretty mundane, as a young man returns home from the city, slogs through the rice paddy and falls in alongside his older brother, tending to the crop as if he'd only stepped away for a moment. But there's something menacing about the younger brother.

And I don't want to say too much about that. Except that it involves a walk in the woods, a duffle bag, a white suit, a boxer-turned-actor playing a kingpin, and the Kentucky Gospel song, "Where We'll Never Grow Old", performed Blue Velvet-style in a strange little nightclub.

In both halves of the film, one common thread is a bizarre-looking Channel 7 soap opera -- something involving a tiny, misshapen, dark-skinned person being beaten. What the heck is that? Is it something to do with the Sangthong story? Or maybe I'm reading too much into it?

When I first heard about this film, which premiered as an Un Certain Regard selection at the Cannes Film Festival this year, I wasn't sure I'd like it. But I found myself captivated from the moment the opening credits rolled over the scratchy sounds of an old-time country-and-western song. I was caught up in the familiar-feeling rhythms of both urban and rural life, as well as the abrupt shift into surrealism. It all fits in there, somehow.

1 comment:

  1. Looks interesting, I wanna see it. I'll probably have to wait until next year, since I live in the State where the film will never be release.

    It's almost 2 years and I still haven't seen Pleasure Factory. Still waiting for someone to upload it on megaupload.

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