Saturday, October 12, 2013

Review: Karaoke Girl

  • Directed by Visra Vichet Vadakan
  • Starring Sa Sittijun
  • Limited release in Thailand on October 3, 2013; rated G
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

In forums, novels and websites about Bangkok's "night entertainment" scene, it's usually the bar girls who are portrayed as mercenaries, victimizing the idiot men who pay to have sex with them. Karaoke Girl (สาวคาราโอเกะ, Sao Karaoke)  turns the tables, with a young karaoke-bar hostess made the victim of her customers and her douchebag rich boyfriend.

The stunning debut feature by U.S.-schooled independent writer-director Visra Vichet-Vadakan, Karaoke Girl is a seamless blend of documentary and drama as it depicts the life of Sa, an exceedingly lovely young woman from the countryside who supports her family back home by working as a hostess in a karaoke bar that caters to well-moneyed, well-lubricated Thai men.

The opening finds her asleep on the beach, and it turns out she's been left there without any money or shoes by a customer who brought her there and took off in the wee hours.

Hitching rides in the backs of pick-ups on her way to Bangkok, it's the first of several trips Sa takes in the movie. Another is a train ride back home to Isaan for the Songkran Thai New Year holiday. Parents and other relations talk about how they really appreciate the money Sa sends home.

Poetic camera work – the director's teacher from New York University, Sandi Sissel, is one of two cinematographers – captures the Songkran water-splashing fun in slo-mo.

Back in Bangkok, Karaoke Girl settles in  for more glimpses of Sa's life of living in her apartment, daubing on her war paint and getting geared up for work in a skirt and little midriff-baring top. At the bar, she serves drinks and sits with "guests". Taking breaks on the roof with her co-workers, a waiter is really nice to her, but the auntie cook (Karuna Lukthumtong from Aditya Assarat's Six to Six) tells him to quit trying so hard. "She doesn't like you."

The rich boyfriend dances around the edges, but lacks commitment. Banknotes flutter on the breeze in reply.

As an epilogue, Sa is dolled up in the bedazzling sequinned outfit of luk thung singers and surrounded by dancers as she performs in a karaoke video of her own, singing a sad country song about a sad country girl. It's a fitting and hopeful end.

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