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June 2010

Soi Cowboy

cast: Nicolas Bro, Pimwalee Thampanyasan, and Petch Mekoh

director: Thomas Clay

112 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Soi Cowboy

Let me begin this review by stating that Thomas Clay is, without a doubt, one of Britain's most promising filmmakers. A writer-director in the grand European tradition, his work displays an eye for detail and an appetite for controversial themes and images that places him well ahead of a generation of young film-makers who seem more interested in courting the mainstream than challenging it. He is also someone who knows how to make an entrance...

His first film The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael (2005) was a beautifully shot piece that dealt with feelings of teenaged middle-class alienation, resentment and rage born of a culture that seems to have internalised hypocrisy. A culture that viciously castigates childish transgression whilst granting its tacit consent to a government dead set on setting the world to fire and blood in the name of the fight against terrorism. It was a powerful, if not entirely successful, piece of filmmaking and it might well have slipped out on DVD unnoticed had our culture's moral watchdogs (and a number of utterly misguided film critics) not decided to take a stand against the film's admittedly horrifying ending.

'Ban this filth' they chanted, thereby ensuring - in true Father Ted style - that the film got the cinematic release that might otherwise have eluded it. Given the fact that, thanks to the flames of outrage, Clay's profile is much higher than that of many other filmmakers, there is a sense that the young director has not quite 'paid his dues' and 'earned his spurs' in a way that might allow our cultural overlords to fully embrace him as that rarest of breeds: a British auteur.

His second film Soi Cowboy shows a desperate desire to be taken seriously and to be a good cultural citizen but for all the style and skill on display, I could not help but feel that somewhere along the line, a unique voice had been lost and replaced with a somewhat muted chorus. A chorus singing a safely familiar tune...

Soi Cowboy opens with a 20 minute sequence that is entirely free of dialogue. We see an obese Scandinavian man (Nicolas Bro) lying in bed next to a petite and beautiful south-east Asian girl (Pimwalee Thampanyasan). The large man makes a grab for her under the covers but the girl turns her back to him. He sighs and gets out of bed. As the couple pad around their apartment, Clay fills in the details of their lives through a series of seemingly innocuous details - Clay moves the camera to take them all in with that Flaubertian gaze, the authorial eye - and we notice that the pair do not make eye-contact when their paths cross.

We note that while he makes himself toast in the morning, she makes herself something with rice. We see that when he sits down at the table to eat his breakfast, she quickly finishes up and goes to wash up. Clay shows us that whereas he showers with the door open, she closes and locks the door. These 20 minutes really do constitute a masterclass in visual storytelling, so powerful is their message that he has hooked up with a pretty young thing who feels little or no affection for him. The spell of silence is broken not by the man speaking to the woman or the woman speaking to the man but the man trying to stop a local shopkeeper from cheating him out of his money. The first words he speaks in his own language are "Fucking Thai cunt." We assume he means the shopkeeper.

From there, Clay proceeds to flesh out the details of his characters' relationships. We know that he is called Toby and that she is called Koi and we know that Toby is desperately trying to earn Koi's love by showering her with gifts. Toby's day involves going to a drug-store to buy viagra, going to a jewellery shop to buy Koi a present, and then an evening spent on the sofa explaining to the pregnant Koi that the present is just a spontaneous gift and not some attempt to hoard valuables they can later sell off in case things go wrong and they have to run. Though of course, the initial trip to the shop to buy viagra suggests that there was nothing spontaneous at all about Toby's gift. This cynicism seems to cut both ways as a meeting between Koi and her brother Cha (Petch Mekoh) reveals that Koi sees her relationship in purely financial terms. Toby has a big heart, he will pay the 150,000 baht 'dowry'.

The mercantile nature of the relationship between the people of Thailand and the west is rather obliquely explored as the film shifts from a black and white art house register to a vibrantly coloured genre one in which Cha is revealed to be a low-level gangster who is sent to kill someone in return for 150,000 baht. Is it the same 150,000 baht as Toby has promised to pay for Koi? The film is rather unclear on the matter though one scene in which local girls discuss the sexual and financial characters of different European nationalities rather suggests that there is. Has Toby been taken in by Thai crooks? Are poor farmers effectively selling their daughters to European men looking for pretty and docile brides?

Again, the film is unclear but Clay's belief that there is something exploitative and unsettling on both sides of this transaction resonates fiercely right up until a surreal final scene in which Toby is cast as a sleazy westerner fraternising with prostitutes while drug-fuelled Thai hoods shoot each other. Are we in the past? Is this how Toby met Koi? Are we in the future? Is this some alternate reality in which concrete facts take a back seat to deeper thematic truth? The answer is not clear and this is partly due to the cinematic language that Clay is using.

Soi Cowboy is a film that is full of cinematic references. Toby clearly works in the film business and producers such as the Weinsteins are name-checked as are a number of different films when Toby goes to the market and requests a number of titles (including Clay's first film). But the desire to pay homage to cinematic culture goes further than in-jokes. It pervades the entire foundations of the film.

Indeed, as I watched the film's languid shots of Bangkok shopping centres and public transport and took in the sudden shift in registers at the halfway mark I was reminded of the work of 2010 Cannes winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose works include 2006's Syndromes And A Century, and 2004's Tropical Malady) and a look at IMDb revealed that Clay and Weerasthakul have shared the cinematographic talents of Soyombhu Mukdeeprom.

Other references include a jarringly surreal ending set in a nightclub reminiscent of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive, a game of hide-and-seek played amidst the black rocks of a ruined temple that borrows heavily from Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), and a general lugubriousness of pace and tone that echoes the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, including his 2001 film Millennium Mambo.

The endless referencing of the film industry and great works of cinema seems designed to assure audiences and critics that Clay is a serious filmmaker. That he is not some snot-nosed punk with a camcorder and an appetite for publicity, but rather a mature artist who has watched all of the great and assimilated them and who is now ready to join in the grand conversation of the art house tradition. This is a film that is all about paying dues. The result is a film which, though fascinating and undeniably beautiful, feels a lot like a series of cinematic pastiches, the show-reel of a film school student who had been told by his professors to watch some Chinese cinema, some Thai cinema, and a few of the old masters, and go away and reproduce what it was that made them famous.

While one can, given the intensity of the reaction to Clay's first film, understand his need to prove himself as a good cultural citizen I think that it reveals some serious problems with the state of world cinema. Firstly, it is lamentable that a director should feel the need to pay his dues by apeing the greats, this speaks to a degree of financially and creative ossification within the industry that cannot be good for anyone.

Secondly, I think that it is sad that the genius of certain directors should be so easy to replicate. Has art house cinema really boiled down to nothing but a few generic phrases that can be stripped of their context and re-used by anyone who can replicate them? I enjoyed Soi Cowboy but I also think that it is a deeply depressing film. I would rather sit through a hundred brutal rape sequences like those of Robert Carmichael than the works of yet another director who feels compelled to bend the knee to the likes of Antonioni. To paraphrase Johnny Rotten, let us call all auteurs boring old farts and then set light to them.

Soi Cowboy's DVD comes with a set of Thai credits and (bizarrely for this kind of production) a number of out-takes and deleted scenes.

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