The Good Woman of Bangkok
By Dennis O'Rourke
Reviewed by Helen Jarvis
Having spent the last few months in South-east Asia, I was unaware of the debate that preceded the opening of the commercial season for this film.
Looking through the paper for a film I might go to, I was struck by the advertisement for The Good Woman of Bangkok: the compelling gaze of the woman and the lurid quotation caught my eye. The clincher was Dennis O'Rourke's name; I have always liked his work. Dennis is well known as a progressive film maker with a particular interest and long involvement in countries in our region.
The Good Woman of Bangkok is an understated film about prostitution in Thailand. The focus is on Yaowalak Chonchanakun, known as Aoi, who comes from a village in Isan, the poor north-eastern region from which many of Bangkok's workers and squatters come in a relentless search for a living.
O'Rourke has chosen the Brecht play The Good Woman of Setzuan as the framework for Aoi's story, an allegory that moves the focus away from the voyeurism which one might expect to dominate such a film (certainly from the quotation in the advertisement).
The film opens with street scenes of Bangkok — the machine-like relentless movement of traffic, the clouds of pollution over all — then a peaceful shot of the entrance to Aoi's village, and her aunt sitting on the ground and speaking laconically in Thai about Aoi's childhood and her "handicap" (she is blind in one eye).
Then we see Aoi on a bus heading for Bangkok. She looks like any number of students I know — simple western-style dress, little or no make-up, hair hanging naturally to her shoulders with a slight fringe frequently falling across her forehead and strong brown eyes behind large owl-like glasses, which for me are the strongest image of Aoi. Strangely enough, the glasses are absent in the film's promotional material.
We see the bar and the hotel in which she works. For anyone who has visited Patpong, Bangkok's most famous sex and bar district for foreigners, the scenes would be depressingly familiar, while for some viewers they might be shockingly new.
Women with bored and listless faces, naked except for high-heeled shoes and bow ties, gyrate to loud music around brass poles. They show the strength and control they have over their vaginas — holding textacolours to write "no hands" messages to the audience, directing ping-pong balls into glasses and inserting chains of razor blades.
We see the women crowded into a space to change and put on make-up. They jostle and snap at each other, giving us some idea of the anxieties and problems they face and the small amounts of money for which they work — the $20 for a night's sex goes first to the bar owner, the hotel and the pimp, while all sorts of charges cut into the woman's portion. One woman remarks that she would need four dollars al times we hear that in many cases the woman ends up with just the tip, and not every man gives one.
I have some contacts with the Thai women's movement — including Empower, a group of sex industry workers fighting to improve their working conditions and to build solidarity and self-confidence among the workers. The images of their situation shown in the film are certainly accurate from what I know.
The most powerful part of the film for me is a series of monologues from Aoi, quietly spoken into a mirror, sometimes lightly and sometimes with anger or great distress — crying, cutting off the interview as her story unfolds. The aunt keeps reappearing, like a chorus filling us in on the background and giving a perspective to the immediacy and poignancy of Aoi's own words.
The shifts from country to city, from street to bar to hotel room are somewhat jumpy, but help to remind the viewer of the context from which the women come — the grinding poverty and demands made by their families, particularly the fathers. We even see one girl (perhaps 13 years old) being brought up in a lift to be sold.
The film has been criticised as voyeuristic and exploitative, but I strongly disagree, except insofar as any film has to look at and exploit its subject and actors.
O'Rourke has been criticised for going to Bangkok and participating in the sex trade, and then getting off scot free by hardly appearing in the film at all. To my mind, he appears too much. The print introduction and epilogue, and his very few questions to Aoi really don't tell us anything more about her; they only confuse the issue by bringing in his emotional state, his reaction to her situation and his relationship with her (which is not satisfactorily explained). I found this irrelevant and distracting from Aoi's own story — a small flaw in a beautiful and powerful film.