Bangkok Girl – What’s In A Smile?

By Jason A. Hill

Bangkok Girl, Canada, 2005

Directed by Jordan Clark

pla smilingAfter the first few minutes into this film, I realized it wasn’t your typical big-budget, Michael Moore-style documentary about global/macro world issues. However, Jordan Clark, with his low-budget quality, gives us a film that is free-flowing and spontaneous, with the kind of scenes that are often missing from many higher profile docs. The filmmaker gets close to the subject of the film, perhaps too close. He blurs the line of objective observance while digging into Bangkok’s seedy underworld. The film deals with the comparatively seldom recognized issue of Bangkok’s “sex tourism” industry. Prostitution is a thriving part of the city’s economy, but it’s also a cause of crime and the exploitation of Bangkok’s young women. Clark arrives just like many other westerners on holiday, but he is armed with a camera and the intent of capturing a story.

It is almost by accident that Clark meets Spoiler AlertPla, who captivates him. Her innocence and smile also lure us in, as we see Bangkok through her eyes. Clark seems almost ashamed to introduce Pla as a “bar girl,” a profession in which girls are hired to work in the bar serving drinks, but are also expected to be companions to the patrons, who are usually western foreigners, called “falang” in Thai, looking for girls for sex.

pla smilingBut Pla is a bar girl, and we learn more and more about her life, which seems to serve as a mirror to the many other “bar girls” that inhabit the city.  She’s poor, lonely, and beautiful. She has a survival instinct that keeps her in the bar girl business, but dreams of escaping that life by moving abroad. We start to dream with her, hoping that maybe she will find a way.

Pla’s story drives the film, interrupted occasionally by Clark’s commentary on Bangkok’s “sex tourism,” which the film does a good job of exposing via undercover shooting techniques. Many of the people who run the bars are Western expatriates and foreigners who bring in money to start the clubs where the girls work. The “falang” are also the source of funds for these clubs to thrive. The local government, who maintain that prostitution is illegal, often take bribes and kickbacks to stay out of the way. The women have little rights for protection and are not even allowed to charge for their services. Any money they get comes in the form of gifts and “tips.” Many of the women seem to have no other choice but to work in the clubs to earn enough money just to survive. Pla explains to Clark that she has to work in the clubs to buy medicine for her mother and, soon after, disappears for a few days, during which Clark assumes she’s with a “client.” Clark doesn’t do much to hide his affection for Pla, which challenges professional ethics in his filmmaking but gives us a truly personal piece not seen in many documentaries. Many of the scenes are clumsy, biased, and amateurish, but he succeeds at showing heart.

I’ve read a lot of controversy concerning the end of the film, which I won’t give away here, but it leaves the viewer wondering about all the women living and working in that world, and what, if anything, can be done to help them.

Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.

For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.


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