Soi Cowboy (2008)

Soi Cowboy first published by Film4

Summary: This brooding sophomore feature from Thomas Clay takes its western director (and protagonist) to an eastern setting, revelling in the casual asymmetries that emerge from such a relationship. 

Review: With his controversial feature debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005), Thomas Clay combined a Kubrickian control of his medium with abhorrent shock tactics, dividing critical responses between adulation and disgust. His second feature Soi Cowboy, though very different in style and subject matter, is no less of an easy ride, and the divisions that it is likely to inspire in viewers are in fact encoded in its very structure. For this is very much a film of two halves – although even the aesthetic comfort of symmetry is avoided by a filmmaker apparently intent on promoting his cinema’s awkward ungainliness.  

There is asymmetry everywhere in Soi Cowboy. Its first section, more than twice the length of the second, broods over an unequal love affair between Eurpoean film director Tobias (Nicolas Bro) and pregnant Thai former sex-club worker Koi (Pimwalee Thampanyasan). He seeks both relief and intimacy through Viagra-assisted sex, and pays for everything; she seeks economic security for herself and her unborn child, and gives little away. As the staid, precisely framed black-and-white imagery observes two days of their Bangkok routine followed by an excursion to the temple ruins of Ayutthaya, the disparity between this odd couple is marked by their different diets and appetites, their faltering linguistic exchanges (expressed in broken Thai and English), and the visual discrepancy of his rippling corpulence against her tiny frame. 

Then, 85 minutes in, the screen fades to black, and the film’s second half begins, contrasting sharply with the first in its much shorter duration, its use of saturated colour film and handheld camerawork, its shift to crime genre, and its inverted movement from the Thai countryside back to the city. Koi’s younger brother Cha (Petch Mekoh) carries out a tragic assignment back home on behalf of his mafia uncle (Somluck Khamsingh), before heading back to the red-light district of Soi Cowboy (where Tobias and Koi first meet) to get his ill-earned reward and bring the narrative full-circle.  

By drawing inspiration from the stately geometric cinematography in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the bi-partite narrative enigmas of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Clay may earn some praise from hardened cinephiles, but he risks alienating pretty much everyone else. Then again, it is doubtful that with this film he was ever intending to pursue popular acclaim. A full twenty minutes elapses before the first (muffled) line is heard. Characterisation emerges as much from the slow scrutiny of inanimate objects as from dramatic dialogue or action. And one skilfully played longueur goes from dull to tense to haunting to borderline hilarious, as it tracks in a wide-shot single take the progress of an elderly woman using her Zimmer frame to hobble slowly from a hotel elevator into a shadowy corridor, only to change her mind halfway down and turn back again. Such patience-testing material certainly has its place and its proper audience – but those whose tastes are married to the mainstream had probably best avoid.  

Perhaps the biggest problem with Soi Cowboy is that, although it presents an economic sketch of the uneven traffic between East and West, city and country, filmmaker and ‘exotic’ subject (with Tobias a barely veiled stand-in for Clay, who is himself a director exiled in production hell), in the end its circular structure will leave viewers too with the sense that they have been on a road to nowhere, while the final pay-off is no more welcome or satisfying than the one ultimately received by Cha. The last, lurid sequence in uncle’s ‘lady bar’ may, as Clay suggests in the production notes, bring us to a point where “we are left with only essence”, but it is an effect which also tends to divest the film of any sense of direction or purpose.       

Verdict: A bold experiment or a crashing bore? Clay’s muted hybrid is a bit of both, in unequal measure. 

© Anton Bitel