“That is why, when all is said and done, the narrative of Luck and Ozawa, due to the lack of the cinematographical conciseness and thematic focus, is not able to truly touch and captivate the spectator.”
Even after wars are over, the scars left by the war are still visible. If you go to my country, Belgium, and visit the western corner of West-Flanders, the various graveyards of American, German, Canadian, …etc. and the left-overs of the bunkers are fixed reminders of the first world war. What concerns Thailand, the scars present there are reminders of their colonial history.
It is the very distance between these ever present scars and the functioning of contemporary Thailand in relation to Japan, that forms the field that Katsuya Tomita tries to cover with his Bangkok Nites, his fourth feature film. Katsuya Tomita, born in 1972 in Kofu, first impressed international audiences with his third feature film Saudade (2011), which screened at the Locarna international film festival and won the Mainichi Film award for Best Director. Is his fourth feature film of the same quality? Let’s find out in our review.
The narrative of Bangkok Nites, as the title presumes, takes largely place in the sprawling megalopolis of Bangkok and more precisely in the red-light district of Thaniya Road, which focuses on attracting Japanese men. Luck (Subenja Pongkorn) is one of the reigning hostesses in Thaniya road, who, like many others, provides for her family.
One day, she meets an old client, Ozawa, an ex-soldier of the Japanese self-defense forces whom she fell in love with. Ozawa barely survives with the little money he is making and when some connections ask him to go to Laos to do prospective research into real estate, he accepts. Luck decide to accompany him and introduce him to her family and her friends who remained in the northeast, near the Laotian border. And even though this trip makes Ozawa dream of a different life in the countryside, he also become aware of the colonial history still present in Thai culture and nature.
As the narrative follows the narrative of Luck, the narrative is in first instance informative of inner-workings of Thaniya road, offering a look behind the scenes of this red-light district often referred to as Little Tokyo – as the signage of the clubs, restaurants, … etc., is all in Japanese and because this area caters, albeit not exclusively, to Japanese clientele. As much as the narrative explores the duality between the facade the girls need to present to the clients and their real opinion shared only with the girls of a given club, Bangkok Nites is also illuminating what the male position concerns. The narrative shows what I would call the male masturbatory reflex on two different levels. The first level concerns the male search for female hostesses to masturbate their ego, which allows them to feel important, while the second level concerns the masturbatory form of sex, a form of sex that reduces women to just objects to solely satisfy their maleness. Furthermore, on a more general level the narrative can be read as a critique on contemporary Thai society, the centrality of the ‘sex’-tourism, and the problematic nature of relations between men and women as mediated by money.
Nevertheless, Luck (who is on a side note allowed to bend the rules somewhat as she is the number 1) is able to speak with Ozawa on a different level, beyond the hostess-client level – meaning, in this case, they quite often speak at cross purposes. Through Luck and Ozawa’s narrative, we are also introduced to Luck’s position within the family and the family dynamics specific to the culture of Thailand, and the cultural practices in Thailand. But on a deeper level, in first instance through the medium of speech, the aspect of colonialism and the lasting effects of past wars are brought to the fore – putting the narrative space of Laos and Thailand into a more richer perspective. And even though the narrative touches upon the male and female dynamics of the hostess industry, the problematic nature of communication and many other things, this ambition ultimately fails to create a focused narrative where we, as spectator, can become truly involved with Ozawa’s and Luck’s slife of life narrative.
The more objective cinematography favours (often temporally long) simple fixed shots, there are many moving shots that are used throughout the framing of the narrative. As Luck is central to the narrative these shots, not surprisingly, often follow Luck (and Ozawa to a lesser degree) and the characters moving in relation to her. When framing exteriors, the moving shots often focus on the movement of vehicles (and Luck inside or on them) as well as, in correspondence with that movement, on the narrative space, extensively introducing this space – the narrative space that surround the subject of Luck – to the spectator.
What immediately stands out is that Katsuya Tomita takes time with his cinematography, using the more ’empty’ narrative sequences – often when no plot evolves – to fill it with the introduction of the narrative space and to paint the atmosphere this space oozes. While music often brings a bit of the Bangkok atmosphere to life, the full potential of the music in relation with the cinematography is not realized. Furthermore the application of the music reveals that the cinematography lacks the thoughtful conciseness Bangkok Nites needed.
Bangkok Nites wants us to show many different sides from Thailand linked by the concept of Saudade, e.g. family related, traditional, contemporary, nature, colonial history… etc. And while it is ambitious of Katsuya Tomita to integrate this palette of aspects into one single cinematographical narrative, this exploration often remains too superficial, while creating a lack of clear narrative focus along the way. While the gender dynamics of the Thai hostess/sex industry are very clearly illustrated, Bangkok nites feels like a jack of all trades, but unfortunately in the end a master of none. That is why, when all is said and done, the narrative of Luck and Ozawa, due to the lack of the cinematographical conciseness and thematic focus, is not able to truly touch and captivate the spectator.