Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cannes Film Festival: Soi Cowboy roundup

The only official selection in the Cannes Film Festival this year that might be considered a Thai film is Soi Cowboy, an Anglo-Thai production from London-Bangok-based DeWarrenne Pictures. Directed by Thailand-based British filmmaker Thomas Clay, Soi Cowboy is a drama about a European man in a relationship with a bargirl from Bangkok's Soi Cowboy red-light district.

Because it's an official selection, in the second-tier Un Certain Regard program, the film has been receiving a lot of press since it premiered. The newspaper critics and trade publications home in on the film's influences and references, which include David Lynch, Michelangelo Antonioni, Carlos Regadas, Bela Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the film is lensed by Apichatpong's cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom), and even Clay himself. One theme of the reviews is how very un-British the film seems, which is a puzzling bit of criticism.

Anyway, let's get to the reviews. Variety's Leslie Felperin was one of the first to weigh in:

Brit helmer Thomas Clay's sophomore feature, Soi Cowboy, demonstrates a growing maturity. This slowburning, enigmatic drama, mostly about a Danish man and a Thai woman awkwardly living together in Bangkok, is deeper and more likeable than Clay's controversial debut, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael. Gone are the latter film's shock tactics, allowing Clay's cinematic sophistication to sparkle all the better. Consequently, a certain highbrow contingent will eagerly pony up for Cowboy, but others may see little more here than a preening bricolage of allusions, richer in style than substance. B.O. prospects are strictly niche.

Writing for Screen Daily, Jonathon Romney was similarly struck by the movie's style:

Young director Thomas Clay is one of the very few figures in current British cinema who can justifiably be described as a maverick. Clay's debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael -- seen in Critics' Week in 2005 -- won him admirers, but also saw him attacked for that film's use of extreme violence. Shot in Thailand, Soi Cowboy will similarly divide viewers but is a sure-footed, deliberately-paced feature that boldly wrong-foots us in the final stretch.

Commercially, however, Soi Cowboy is unlikely to make much of a mark, although festivals may be intrigued by this distinctive anomaly.

Romney is also
blogging for The Independent. Here's more:

A very un-British director, Clay is doffing his hat here to auteurs such as Carlos Reygadas and Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Perhaps the least British UK film you've ever seen, Soi Cowboy confirms -- as his first film didn't quite -- that Clay is a man to watch.

The Hollywood Reporter's Maggie Lee had similar things to say, though was more downbeat:

The dynamics of a mixed-race relationship based on the transaction between economic security and emotional or sexual gratification have seldom been addressed full-on, until Soi Cowboy. To screenwriter-director Thomas Clay’s credit, he neither sensationalizes the relationship nor glamorizes its underworld backdrop. To the film’s detriment, he does not dramatize them compellingly either.

Debuting in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard provides sufficient cachet to boost Soi Cowboy’s festival life elsewhere. Commercial prospects are another story.'s Boyd van Hoeji was also negative on the film's commercial prospects, saying:

The fact that the first twenty minutes are without dialogue and that more than half of it is in black-and-white will mean the death knell for this film in any commercial ventures ...

That Clay has a fondness for the ennui generated by simply waiting is clear, as both Robert Carmichael and Soi Cowboy share a structural similarity in which the running time is used against the viewer in an attempt to generate a quiet before the storm-type anticipation that cannot but end with a violent catharsis. The problem with Soi Cowboy is that this quiet is awfully quiet. Antonioni, to whom this film pays “indirect homage” as the director puts it, made ennui exciting cinematographically, but Clay’s screenplay and editing leave out almost anything that might make the two main characters worthwhile to take an interest in for an hour or two.

The Times' Wendy Ide wasn't as kind, giving the film 2 out of 5 stars. Here is an excerpt:

[T]he film is divided into two distinct parts, perhaps as a nod towards Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. The first segment, shot in rather lifeless black and white, observes the mundane minutiae of the lives of a bloated Danish expat and his pregnant, childlike Thai girlfriend. The man, played by Nicholas Bro, is a filmmaker – presumably he is Clay’s alter-ego, although what that says about his life in Thailand is debatable. The couple live together in a cramped apartment but it feels more like a convenient co-existence than a relationship. Clay favours long takes and an almost static camera, but he seems less confident in what to do with it than he was in his first film. At one point, during an interminable, wordless breakfast scene, the camera starts to drift gradually, almost imperceptibly, before coming to rest, inexplicably, on a toaster.


After the stultifying austerity of the first segment, the saturated colours and the jerky hand - held camera of the second part come as a relief. Stylistically, it’s more rewarding. Set among the rural poor, the story demonstrates how much less a life is worth if the cushion of money is not there to protect it. A young man returns home, on the orders of his mafia boss, to kill his brother for some unspecified sin. However, his own life is worth little more. The couple from the first part reappear but as different characters to highlight the film’s less than profound insight that a wrong turn somewhere in life can have devastating ramifications.

See also:

(Via GreenCine Daily)

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