After the controversy surrounding British director Thomas Clay's debut feature film, "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael", one might be predisposed to making certain assumptions about the direction his work might take in the future. That first piece of work seemed to suggest a sensibility firmly entrenched in the social realist school of British film-making, in which bleak UK settings form a backdrop to slow-paced ruminations on contemporary society, accompanied by - as was the case in " ...Carmichael" - a large helping of savage arthouse-style rape & violence in the tradition of Casper Noi's "Irreversible". Clay's follow-up is only shocking in terms of just how far it strays from this predictable template, with "Soi Cowboy" only likely to induce walk outs and jeers from those unwilling to indulge its uncompromising, painfully oblique style of narrative, with its almost zen-like lassitude and cryptic refusal to bear easy interpretation. The film swaps the familiar landscapes of Clay's native England for an unromantic, matter-of-fact portrayal of Thailand, moving between the teeming bustle of downtown Bangkok and the humid greenery and paddy-fields on the city's outskirts. Various contrasting cinematic techniques are employed, with the film completely changing in style and approach as well as (apparently) subject matter after a "Wizard of Oz" moment transforms it from its arid asthetic of harsh monochrome photography, to one of vivid colour in the last half-hour.
Nicolas Bro and Pimwalee Thampanyasan star as Tobias and Koi - the quintessential odd couple, he being a grossly overweight European and she a diminutive native Thai; a pregnant ex-prostitute from Bangkok's red light district (known as Soi Cowboy). They share a small apartment together on the upper floor of a multistory building where they live in near total silence. The film starts by following their morning routine in lingering shots that play out practically in real time, as though caught on a store surveillance video. The prosaic black and white photography and the odd, slow movements of Clay's camera (which often leaves the characters alone to pan in, cryptically, on a nondescript cupboard in the corner of the room or a toaster on a side table), reinforces this impression of realist, documentary verisimilitude, as caught on video. A long scene, held in a single shot, of Tobias writing on his laptop while Koi plays a noisy hand-held video game leaves the viewer with the impression of eavesdropping on a domestic scene that's been caught accidently on someone's camcorder.We see them separately making breakfast, washing or drying their hair with barely a glance at each other, leaving the viewer to interpret their relationship from just these surface visual features of their interactions - or, rather, their lack of interaction.
The opening half hour is pretty unforgiving if you're expecting a conventional film with a plot and dialogue and character interaction. We are quietly enjoined instead to observe each protagonist separately as Tobias shops for trinkets, pirate DVDs and jewellery around epartment stores and street stalls, and Koi visits her brother; gradually our prejudices about exactly what underpins a relationship between a fat, seemingly very rich Westerner, or "farrang" as the native population call them (we glean from an overheard cell phone conversation that Tobias is probably a screenwriter), and a poor Thai girl, are augmented and gradually subtly altered as we are drawn into the delicate dynamics behind the structure of their relationship. This is painstaking character study via acute, meticulous observation of mundane day-to-day experience. Tobias buys Koi gifts - loads of cuddly toys and bracelets - which illicit a childlike glee from her, which is in turn the closest he ever gets to the affection he seeks. She tactfully fends off his nightly, hesitant sexual advances, but a long train trip to the temples of Ayutthaya in the Taiwanese countryside eventually leads to a tactical acceptance of one such advance.
As light leaves the mysterious countryside with Tobias and Koi merging among the trails of sightseers who flock around the country's strange and magnificent temples, Clay introduces us to a new world, new characters and new relationships, breaking all normal rules of screen writing and film-making by not only switching to colour film, but shooting with it in a completely different style. While the long, static 'security camera-like' takes of the first hour could be seen as a distancing strategy, the hand-held, shaky-cam approach of the next half hour seems calculated to plunge us headlong into the reality of the experience of the characters. Now, rather than the torpid and somehow effete & disconnected view of the world of Tobias and Koi, we are right in amongst the vivid sights and sounds of a life and death story in which we re-join Koi's brother Cha (Petch Mekoh), as he is sent back home by a ruthless mafia enforcer to murder his own older brother and bring back his head!
This vivid yet still essentially realist segment of film then gives way to what feels like outright deliberate pastiche of David Lynch's work in the final moments of the movie. A certain famous sequence in "Twin Peaks" cannot help but come to mind, and Clay resorts to Lynch's technique of creating unease in the viewer by messing with the established identity of his characters, as the actors playing Tobias and Koi return again in a radically different setting and perhaps as different parallel universe versions of their former selves. What does it all mean? I can't pretend to have any definitive answers, and I'm not that sure there are any; but for film fans who are prepared to consider and analyse what they are actually watching until resonances are set off and subtle connections begin to be made in the mind, instead of just being content to be spoon-fed simple repetitive formulas, this will be an engrossing experience full of implied comment about culture clash and interpretation of cross-cultural motives, while never bashing you over the head with its message. It's a slow, quiet and thoughtful piece that's never going to make big headlines like its predecessor, but deserves an audience who are prepared to accept a departure from the usual way they watch a film.
The DVD from Network Releasing offers a solid anamorphic transfer (the film is never that sharp or visually dynamic until near the end, but that is how it is supposed to look) and comes with a small selection of deleted scenes which do not amount to much, consisting mainly of alternative angles for scenes already included in the film. A theatrical trailer is also included