Soi Cowboy Review
It may come as a surprise to some after the sound and fury of his controversial debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, but there is a more gentle side revealed to UK director Thomas Clay in his second Thai-based feature, Soi Cowboy. This film however is also not without its sting in the tale.
The opening sets the tone of the main part of the film, allowing the viewers’ prejudices to be played upon with the sight of an overweight white European male lying in bed with a young Thai girl. Their morning breakfast routine doesn’t allay any suspicions, the tasks undertaken in silence, automatically, with no pleasantries or greetings occurring between the unusual couple, suggesting that they have nothing to say to each other beyond the demands of a commercial transaction. The manner in which it is filmed however suggests there’s more than meets the eye, and reminiscent of the daily routine of Chantal Ackermann’s Jeanne Dielman, there’s even an air of subtle menace and perhaps a premonition of the violence to come.
Nothing however is that simple in the film which almost actively seeks to continually propose one option and then undermine the viewer’s interpretation of it. It’s true that there is a certain element of commercial give and take in the relationship of Toby (Nicolas Bro) and Koi (Pimwalee Thampanyasan), the man buying gifts for the young woman and expecting sex in exchange, but there is a deeper level to the relationship than that, particularly as it soon becomes clear that Koi is pregnant. Whatever the reasons for their hooking up – and it soon becomes clear that there are other business transactions going on, Koi having previously been working in the Soi Cowboy red-light district of Bangkok – there is indeed love and tenderness between the European man and the Thai girl, a bond between them, a sense of security and togetherness, something living and growing.
...And that’s the point – nothing is as simple as it appears on the surface – there are many other factors, emotions and internalised feelings that cinema traditionally fails to put across on the screen, relying instead on surface imagery and expositional dialogue. Clay delves deeper into this complex arrangement and the ripples from it that extend out into family, society and business matters in the latter part of the film, which switches from the black-and-white slow camera pans of the city sections, to frenetic handheld work in saturated colour largely taking part in the Thai countryside. The bi-partite structure recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work (Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady) as does the worldview, finding love and beauty in unexpected places, taking an oblique look at modern society and the human emotions within it that has more going on beneath the surface than we could imagine. The twist however here is more David Lynch, an alternative parallel situation of the relationship seen from an expressionistic internalised perspective, the lines between civilised society and animal behaviour (city/jungle) that lies within human nature less distinct and not as easy to define as we would like it to be.
That comes across effectively in the film, Clay clearly having the ability to delve into areas that traditionally only a handful of great filmmakers venture. The question remains however whether this is merely the director professing a cinephile solidarity with a certain style of filmmaking (Carlos Reygadas – another director who could be accused of too much homage and reference in his work, also comes to mind with certain segments here reminiscent of Battle in Heaven) or whether he has anything to bring to the filmmaking himself. Time will tell, but in the meantime there’s enough here in Soi Cowboy to give reason for serious consideration.
Soi Cowboy opens at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London on June 12. The film's trailer can be viewed here.