In this second piece spotlighting some of the selections for the London East Asian Film Festival, two films about Thailand. One, a vision from home from new Thai talent Anocha Suwichakornpong in her enigmatic, alluring By The Time It Gets Dark; and the other from a Japanese filmmaker looking in, Katsuya Tomita's Bangkok Nites.
It's estimated that around 1.5 million Japanese visit Thailand every year, making them easily the largest national tourist group coming into the country. If the depressing vision of Katsuya Tomita's Bangkok Nites is to be believed, a significant factor in this is sex tourism. Tomita's sprawling, ambitious and decidedly sordid opus tracks the activities of expatriate Japanese men who've come to Bangkok with the explicit purpose of exploitation. These men, largely amoral outcasts looking to rinse the country of any available capital before moving on to the next "paradise on earth," service a visiting Japanese clientele with a specific idea of Thailand in their minds. It is Tomita's intent, it seems, to expose the actuality of it, the reality behind the fantasy.
The film opens with two images it returns to many times. The first (above), sees the lead character, rural girl turned top-earning city prostitute Luck (Subenja Pongkorn), staring listlessly as her own reflection amidst a cool blur of neon glass and steel. The second has a Japanese businessman entering a brothel to face a gallery of prostitutes, all dressed in white and lit up like a dentist's surgery, a shop-window of wide smiles and hollow eyes. "Who speaks Japanese?" he asks. "Meeeee," they all squeal back. "Who sucks dick?" A less spirited response. The man selects a willing girl and takes her through. In a later reworking of this scene, the camera remains with the girls after the selection is made. The bright lights dim and it's back to reality, phones out and idle chatter. One of Tomita's points with the film, in the repetition of these haunted scenarios until they seem commonplace, is that, as much as the girls may try to detach themselves from it, this isn't just work; and while it isn't exactly slavery, they don't arrive at it entirely voluntarily either. It's a cyclical system, generation-spanning and tied in with a history of colonial exploitation, that oppresses and envelops whole families and townships and swallows souls. As Luck later says forlornly, "us girls are happy until we turn sixteen."
Running nearly three hours and shot over four years, Tomita allows ample space to develop his world and the characters that circulate it. Shooting in a mix of low grade digital video styles, he first captures the milieu of this urban underworld in almost straight documentary style, before a midway switch sees the action move out of Bangkok and to rural Isan. Here, and in a Laos set interlude, he finds the freedom to experiment that elevates the film, employing more inventive camerawork, longer, more expressive takes, slow-motion and a (obligatory) drone shot. Despite the bleak subject matter, it's an intensely ambitious, exciting film, packed with ideas and emotion, and made with a fluidity to match the expansiveness of it's scope.
A real pan-Asian coproduction, Bangkok Nites sees a Japanese director working in Thailand with a mix of Japanese and local crew, with Laos filmmaker Mattie Do credited as co-producer, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (alongside Abel Ferrara) given special thanks. Tomita draws in influences and lets his film sprawl, switching stylistic approach to fit the scenario, avoiding restraint, if at the expense of structure or consistency. Characters are given space to become fully realised, and scenes left to breathe. Instead of feeling like an outsider heading to a foreign locale in search of exotic, it feels like a filmmaker linking themes close to home (economic crisis and unemployment) with those relate more to the elsewhere (sex work and economic exploitation), whilst seeing how the things that affect both (colonialism, crime, suffering and injustice) tie these places together.
Tomita impressively weaves this narrative of national exploitation around a central story, that of Luck and her family and past, and of Ozawa (played by the director himself), one of her Japanese clients who she enters a strange kind of tryst with, and their attempt to find a way out of this system they've found themselves in the middle of. Linking the two worlds, those of the Tokyoites who find no place for themselves in their homeland so turn to less economically developed bordering countries, and the impoverished communities who find themselves on the receiving end of this exploitation, Tomita explores both sides, condemning one and sympathising with the other whilst allowing space for the possibility of something more complicated inbetween.
"This is no fucking paradise," an exasperated French tourist proclaims, so drunk he's barely able to hold his head. "Is there anything you don't have to pay for in Thailand?" Any notion of paradise is dependent on delusion, on the suspension of disbelief and the removal of elements that prove asynchronous with the fantasy, an unwillingness to see the reality behind utopia. In Tomita's film, paradise is something easily constructed for the right price. The facade crumbles when the money starts to run out. One of the most horrifying lines of dialogue has one of the Japanese businessman, having failed to extract enough profit out of a scheme to entice ageing Japanese men into buying new-build (prefab homes) with live-in Thai wives included in the price, speculating over where the next "untouched paradise" ripe for exploitation might lie. Tomita's vision of Thailand is one of ordinary citizens paying the price for crimes they didn't commit, the evils of colonialism and capitalism wreaking longtime havoc on rural communities dragged into the chaos of the metropolis through economic necessity. It's the way that he portrays these chains of exploitation that is the most chilling, how everything ties together and continues on. "Laos is the new Thailand!"
Old and new Thailand can be seen in Anocha Suwichakornpong's By The Time It Gets Dark, the enigmatic, entrancing second feature from a hugely promising new filmmaker. Associative and loose, By The Time It Gets Dark is somewhat incomprehensible but fascinating despite this - alluring in it's elusiveness and entrancing in its unwillingness to conform to shape. Less a concrete narrative than a series of abstract scenarios, Suwichakornpong's film is a rapidly dissolving dream, one that spirals out of a self-reflexive central conceit. A young filmmaker (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) interviews an older former activist (Rassami Paoluengtong) about her experience of the Bangkok 1976 student protests, in order to make a film about her. The filmmaker's hope, in making a record of her subject's life, is to interrogate "living history." This idea proves as elusive as it might be expected, and Suwichakornpong's film about the process of constructing a film becomes one about the slipperiness of exploring memory and recording history, about the burden of the past, lurching and digressing at will with the actions and thoughts of its characters.
The film's strength (and simultaneously its weakness) is in this fragmentation, in its total surrender of any defining logic. Prone to aesthetic, geographic and narrative shifts, as soon as a story becomes apparent or a style starts to form, Suwichakornpong collapses the film in on itself, always unexpectedly, often brilliantly. At one point, an intimate moment dissolves into a rapid barrage of archive material - gorgeous, bizarre footage of mushrooms flowering and decaying layered into an exuberant montage. At another, an assaultive club scene collapses instantaneously, the flashing colours of the garish interior dissolving into a blanket of digital decay - as if the film itself is decomposing. As the pixel's rebuild, the scene is one of nature, a tree in inverted, late-Godardian saturated colours that slowly returns to the colour of reality. These jump-switches, as jarring as they are, keep the viewer on their feet. What looks to be a languid, lyrical film - almost asynchronously so considering the severity of the subject matter - reveals itself as an anguished, visceral one too.
Running parallel to the filmmaker-subject narrative is one surrounding a young popstar (Arak Amornsupasiri), who is seen near the end onscreen in an edit suite, the filmmaker character grading his scenes in her film. How he came to be in it is never explained, nor are any of the detours Suwichakornpong takes her film along, which may frustrate. A film as formless as this might suggest a lack of control from the filmmaker at the helm, but somehow By The Time It Gets Dark doesn't feel like this. As it drifts through encounters and observations, there is intuitiveness about the filmmaking, the sense of a filmmaker not so much wrestling but dancing with her relationship with her country's history and her position as someone able to interact with it through art. Even if this film feels like a puzzle that might be impossible to solve, the fluidity and acuity with which Suwichakornpong switches between different modes and forms, organises space and orchestrates actors, shows a filmmaker with a confidence beyond her experience. and a creativity and willingness to experiment that will lead to greatness, even if it may have slipped away here.
Bangkok Nites and By The Time It Gets Dark show vastly different sides of Thailand, adopting differing techniques and styles in which to do so. What they share - and what makes them strong showcases for ambitious, exciting new filmmakers - is a willingness to take risk, to eschew structure and concrete form in lieu of attempts at something more unusual, to find new ways to express old ideas. Whilst neither might be totally successful in expression or execution, surely coming close is merit enough? Both filmmakers produced tremendous debuts. It's testament to them that neither tried to repeat that success, and instead looked for new challenges. Consistency is great, reinvention is better.