Dir. Thomas Clay, Thailand/UK, 2008, 117 mins
Nicolas Bro, Pimwalee Thampanyasan, Petch Mekoh
It is difficult not to view Soi Cowboy, at least partially, as an exercise in reputation rebuilding on the part of its director Thomas Clay. That might seem strange, given that the British filmmaker has only one feature length film behind him, but Clay's The Great Ecstasy of Rob ert Carmichael (2005) climaxed with such an appalling and graphic act of sexual violence, that many critics and audiences dismissed the film as repugnant, disgusting, depraved, and just not on . No matter that Clay had made a bold, if flawed, attempt at an anti-war allegory, no matter that the film scored points for imaginative framing and sound design, and no matter that the director's restrained, calculated style had conjured an intensely disquieting mood that actively served to amplify the audience's gut response. The overwhelming sense was that Clay had reached a representational dead end before he'd really got started.
Significantly Clay keeps violence and shock tactics to a minimum in Soi Cowboy, favouring a more suggestive, morally ambiguous and thematically rich approach. The wordless first twenty minutes of the film take place in a Bangkok apartment (a world away from Carmichael 's sleepy, south coast of England town), where Toby (Nicolas Bro), an overweight, slobbish Scandinavian man lives with Koi, a beautiful, petite, Thai woman (Pimwalee Thampanyasan), who is also pregnant. Clay's dispassionate camera lingers in their apartment, recording in long, often static takes and inviting the viewer to observe the dynamics of their relationship. They sleep in the same bed but there is no contact or communication between Toby and Koi. Toby scratches, sniffs, leaves the bathroom door open when he pees and showers, and casts forlorn looks in Koi's direction. Koi, poised and precise, shuns Toby's half-hearted sexual advances and seems indifferent to his presence in the flat.
What slowly emerges is a sensitive and understated portrayal of a relationship based on compromise between a libidinous, wealthy Westerner (Toby works in the European film industry, we are led to understand) and an exotic, disenfranchised Other. A conversation between a gaggle of young Thai women hints at a life that Koi has left behind – working Soi Cowboy, a notorious street in Bangkok's red light district, where tourists satisfy their carnal desires (it's reasonable to assume that that's where the couple met). Koi may weep silently after enduring sex with Toby but marriage to a farang (a semi-derogatory Thai term for a foreigner) offers economic security for her and her existing and future family. Indeed, it's not an entirely unaffectionate arrangement – Koi defends Toby when chatting to a friend and arguing with a waitress; Toby buys Koi unexpected gifts, and the couple enjoy occasional flirtatious banter together.
This humanist study of love in the globalised 21 st century ends abruptly, however, and becomes the story of Cha, Koi's younger brother, who has returned to his rural village to complete a grisly task set by his Uncle, a local Mafioso. This second section of Soi Cowboy is both narratively and visually a completely different film. Sharp black and white becomes grainy colour, the camera begins to wobble and pick up pace, and the setting switches from city to countryside, rich to poor. It is an alarming, but exhilarating transformation that cranks up the suspense and not only gives context to Koi and Toby's story (we glimpse Koi's parents and the ramshackle home where she presumably grew up) but explores another sacrificial path to economic prosperity that's open to Thailand's Isaan underclass.
The film's most jarring transition, however, comes in the final scene, which echoes David Lynch with its seedy, baroque set design, eerie, high contrast lighting, and lone, spot lit singer. Though the scene is startling and intriguing, the fact that Clay has assembled a plethora of popular Thai celebrities (including boxing champion Somluk Kuamsing, and soap opera star Art Suppawat) to form its backdrop, any meaning that might be inferred from that is likely to pass most audiences by. In this aspect it is one of many overtly self-conscious flourishes in Soi Cowboy . Elsewhere for example Toby asks a street DVD vendor if he has The Great Ecstasy of Rob ert Carmichael, and on another occasion Clay's camera lingers interminably on an unknown elderly woman shuffling down a hotel corridor with her walking frame. In moments such as these – and you might add Carmichael 's catastrophic ending to the list – it is as if Clay is pushing a European auteurist agenda rather too forcibly. There's no need. If he continues to make films as imaginative, captivating and tantalisingly mysterious as is the greater part of Soi Cowboy , recognition will surely come without the prompting.