Sunday, June 21, 2009

Japanese Cinema Blogathon/NYAFF '09 - Review: Children of the Dark

  • Directed by Junji Sakamoto
  • Starring Yosuke Eguchi, Aoi Miyazaki, Praptpadol Suwanbang, Prima Ratchata, Setanan Homyamyen
  • Screening at the New York Asian Film Festival, 1.25pm on Wednesday, June 24 and at 9.40pm on Monday, June 29, 2009; reviewed on screener DVD, courtesy of Grady Hendrix and the New York Asian Film Festival
  • Rating: 4/5


It's the haunting cry of a girl.


It's the cry of another.

Who Yairoon and Senla are is a suspenseful thread that runs throughout Children of the Dark, a gripping Japanese drama about exploitation of children for the sex trade and organ trafficking in Thailand.

Directed by Junji Sakamoto and adapted from a book by Sogil Yan, Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Yami no kodomotachi) gained notoriety in Thailand after it was pulled from the program of the 2008 Bangkok International Film Festival.

At first the reason given for yanking the film was that Sakamoto hadn't received proper permission to shoot it in Thailand. But in fact Children of the Dark was a made as a Thai-Japanese co-production, and Sakamoto denied he'd done any sneaking around or that he'd filmed anything that was "hidden", as Thai authorities had said.

He finally screened it in Bangkok this past February for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, and explained that the sex scenes with the children had been shot in such a way that the adult and child actors were filmed separately.

But it's easy to see why Thai authorities had deemed the film "inappropriate" and
didn't want it shown in a festival co-sponsored by the government's image-obsessed tourism agency. Children of the Dark is perhaps too raw, too exploitive, too explicit and overly dramatic. Call it poverty porn if you will, yet it lays bare the problems that exist in society -- corruption, greed, a lack of compassion and the idea that anything goes for anyone who has enough money.

The blame isn't just on the complicit cops and dodgy hospitals ("Don't make fun of Thai doctors."). And it's not just the parents who are, for reasons not fully explained in the film, compelled to sell their children to the bottom-feeder traffickers.

Foreigners are also to blame. Perverted Japanese, fat European pedophiles, weirdo co-dependent Americans. All are there. Naked and sweating, their folds of flab there to see, creating the demand for this stomach-churning, unnatural sex trade.

"Do you take Visa?"

The story begins and ends in the mountains of northern Thailand, in a remote village of thatched-roof huts, where a trafficker hands over some money to a father and takes away a child.

But the driving force is Nambu (Yosuke Eguchi), a reporter for the Bangkok bureau of the Japan Times. He's heard that Thai children's organs are being harvested for transplants for Japanese patients. On the street and talking on the phone with his editor, Nambu says the Thai kids aren't brain dead, but healthy. They're anesthetized and put on the operating table. As the list of body parts is reeled off, Nambu's eyes drift across trays of organs and meat, on ice, waiting to be cooked by a street vendor.

It's little details like that, along with the bare butts of those foreigners, that keep the story moving along.

Meanwhile, an earnest young Japanese woman (Aoi Miyazaki) arrives to work at a child-welfare non-governmental organization. Keiko is taken to a railway shantytown, where tin shacks sit almost directly on the tracks. Seeing the living conditions there, and hearing of a girl named Aranya (Setanan Homyamyen) who's likely been sold off by her father, Keiko becomes even more determined.

A smuggled letter leads Keiko and the child welfare people to Chiang Rai, in the mountains of northern Thailand, and brothel that caters to foreign sex tourists. It's the same place the girl from the mountain village was brought by the trafficker. The kids are bundled into the place inside luggage -- wriggling sacks.

If the kids get AIDS, they are bundled back out in bags -- trash bags, thrown onto the back of a truck. Yet another child's journey is followed on this route, eventually leading back to that little mountain town of thatched-roof homes.

Getting inside the brothel to find out if Aranya is there proves to be difficult. The gangsters who run the place are armed with machetes.

Eventually, the social workers and the journalists combine forces, and the story goes to Japan, to try and convince the parents of the intended recipient of the organs not to go through with the operation.

There are numerous side characters in this sprawling story. Among them is a troublemaking young Japanese photographer (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who's bailed out of a Thai jail by Nambu and enlisted to stake out the hospital and watch for the organ donor and the recipient's family to show up.

Keiko, meanwhile, is staking out the Chiang Rai brothel, watching for a wriggling black garbage bag to be tossed onto the trash truck.

And the fiery children's NGO head (Prima Ratchata) is staging rally to publicly expose the traffickers. It turns into a gunfight that includes a trailer-worthy shot of a car exploding.

Over-the-top melodrama leaves a bit of a sour taste. No wonder the kids are spitting.

And then there's a puzzling twist with regards to Nambu, and a conflict that brought him to his knees.

And he's not the only conflicted one. There's that trafficker, played in one of the strongest performances in the film by Praptpadol Suwanbang. He menacing one moment, but the next is singing a sweet song to calm down screaming children. He remembers his own childhood sexual abuse -- memories so vivid they make him vomit. Yet he still takes part in the flesh trade.

With a return to the mountain village, and a stream that runs beside it, the thread of Yairoon and Senla finally plays out. But the story isn't over.

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