Appellate Judge Brendan Babish suddenly feels very guilty about that bachelor party he attended last weekend.
"Bangkok is a man's playground."
Bangkok Girl is the debut documentary from Canadian filmmaker Jordan Clark. While visiting in Bangkok a few years back, Clark quickly became enchanted with Thailand's exotic culture and fine-looking populace. However, he was also disturbed by the preponderance of Thai women who were forced to work as prostitutes, largely due to the lack of legitimate employment. In an attempt to better understand the foreigners who reveled in their defilement of these young girls, and the girls who allowed themselves to be defiled, Clark took his camera to some of the popular spots in Bangkok's seedy red-light district.
In the midst of his research, Clark met Pla, a 19-year-old bar girl. Throughout this brief documentary, Pla serves as his guide through Bangkok. Initially she shows off the city's modern-looking railway system and a well-maintained public park. However, Clark does not seem very interested in Bangkok's infrastructure. He keeps his camera focused on the plucky and somewhat affected young lady. As Clark notes early on—in a languid voiceover—Pla's affable demeanor might all be an act. Indeed, one of the documentary's most intriguing aspects lies in trying to glean what horrors lie underneath Pla's seemingly carefree continence.
Though all her female co-workers seem to be for sale, Pla insists not she does not take part in the sex trade. And though her denials defied common sense, I was still tempted to believe her, and was sadly disappointed when she went on a two-day foray with a foreign customer. Clark does an effective job helping us understand the larger context of Pla's situation, explaining how she has virtually no other opportunity to make money outside of selling herself. However, an increased understanding of Pla's situation does nothing to diminish the sorrow her situation inspires. In fact, Clark's interviews—one with a loutish Brit, another with an assertive transsexual—enhance our feelings of despondency.
Bangkok Girl proves to be an effective, and moving, introduction to Thailand's bustling sex-trade industry. Watching it is both an edifying and emotional—perhaps even heartbreaking—experience. And for a first-time filmmaker, Clark has put together a surprisingly professional-looking movie. However, his inexperience does slightly hamper the effectiveness of Bangkok Girl. His voiceover sounds disinterested, almost sleepy, and this seems especially jarring in contrast to the evocative footage he's shot. Clark also never appears on camera himself. While personal appearances aren't requisites for documentary filmmakers, I was left curious to see how he interacted with Pla when he was not behind the camera, interviewing her. Lastly, the film ends with a sudden, startling update on Pla's life that Clark only learned after filming was completed. While I understand that by this time he had already returned to his native Canada, this left a lot of questions I wished Clark had answered.
That said, Bangkok Girl is still an engrossing documentary, and I can recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in the subject matter. But be warned: this film is disturbing—and if you somehow manage to watch it without discomfort you should probably do some serious self-reflection to better understand your sensitivity.
Bangkok Girl was produced by High Banks Entertain and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada's national television station. So while the budget was clearly limited, there was still enough to produce a crisp soundtrack and a picture that is bright and clear—sometimes, when Clark shoots some of the more squalid sections of Bangkok, appallingly so.
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