With a title echoing one of Bertolt Brecht's classics, The Good Woman of Szechuan, Dennis O'Rourke's THE GOOD WOMAN OF BANGKOK burrows beneath the seamy surface of its subject in a way that recalls not only Brecht but also Godard. A self-described "fiction documentary," it teases and
tantalizes with the promise of a video wallow in the fleshpots of Bangkok. But it delivers a profoundly moving, unsparing look into the depths of human despair in a society of free-market exploitation run amuck.
The title's "good woman," Aoi (Yaowalak Chonchanakun), whose name roughly translates as "Sweetie," could be the subject of a dirty limerick, or the bathetic heroine of a D.W. Griffith melodrama. A one-eyed street whore, she seems to have been driven into her profession from the start when, as a
child in rural northern Thailand, she was mocked for her disfigurement by other children and then thrown out of her school for being too slow a learner. She worked in the rice paddies through the rest of her miserable childhood, forced to support her family because her father was a drunk
perpetually in debt to loan sharks. More misery followed in a marriage to an abusive husband who abandoned her when she became pregnant and then remarried without bothering to divorce her.
When veteran documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke (HALF LIFE, CANNIBAL TOURS) finds her, Aoi is the mother of two and working the Bangkok sex clubs at the age of 25, sending what money she can back to her now-widowed mother to care for her children. In a pre-title prologue, O'Rourke explains
that he wound up in Bangkok after his own marriage fell apart, brought there by the desire to make a film about the possibility of love without pain. O'Rourke instead discovers that, to quote a title of Fassbinder (another filmmaker echoed in BANGKOK), for Aoi, "love is colder than death." By the
end, O'Rourke is heard off-camera offering to buy her a rice farm in the country on the condition that she leave the sex business. Aoi accepts only on the condition that O'Rourke expect nothing in return. An end-title notes that, tracking down Aoi sometime later, O'Rourke finds she has abandoned
the farm and returned to her former profession.
The O'Rourke in the film, who abandons all pretense of documentary non-involvement (and, in fact, had a long-running sexual involvement with Aoi not mentioned in the film), seems separate from O'Rourke the director, whose ruthless intrusions into Aoi's most personal moments come to resemble a
form of rape by camera. Significantly, except for a brief glimpse of Aoi dancing nude in a club at the beginning, she is never seen actually plying her trade. Instead, we see her in much more intimate acts of eating, sleeping, talking privately, with friends and an aunt and tending a small
religious shrine to her dead father. Often Aoi complains that these activities have nothing to do with O'Rourke's film and asks him to turn off his camera, which he never does. Later she tearfully complains that O'Rourke is manipulating her for the purpose of his film. At other times, she rebels.
Realizing that O'Rourke is filming her as she is trying to sleep, she tries to pull the covers over herself.
It is in these and other scenes that THE GOOD WOMAN OF BANGKOK gradually becomes less about Aoi or the Thailand sex industry, which receives scant serious scrutiny, and more about the undefined distance between O'Rourke the filmmaker and O'Rourke the man in their respective relationships with
Aoi. Rather than making O'Rourke seem heroic, however, we come to see less difference between him and the drunk patrons of Bangkok's red light district, interviewed at various points in the film, who rationalize their swinishness in the conviction that they are actually helping women by giving
them money to better their lives. As it becomes depressingly clear, there is no better life for any of these women. Being bought and sold like animals has destroyed any capacity for love, either for themselves or for others. In this context, O'Rourke's buying Aoi a farm just becomes another
transaction, a rationale for exploitation under the guise of "bettering" her life. The inescapable pathos of Aoi's life is that she is able to understand what is happening to her, yet she is powerless to prevent it.
Similarly, THE GOOD WOMAN OF BANGKOK becomes trapped by its own lucidity and helplessness. The usual agenda in a film of this type is to find someone or something to blame, issue a clarion call for punishment of the guilty ... and then move on. But BANGKOK is not that type of film. It instead
traps the viewer with the realization that, for all our aspirations to godliness, as Brecht wrote in one of his lyrics to The Threepenny Opera, mankind is kept alive by bestial acts. The most disturbing aspect of BANGKOK is that we're left unsure whether this film may be one of them. (Sexualthemes, nudity, profanity.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: With a title echoing one of Bertolt Brecht's classics, The Good Woman of Szechuan, Dennis O'Rourke's THE GOOD WOMAN OF BANGKOK burrows beneath the seamy surface of its subject in a way that recalls not only Brecht but also Godard. A self-described "fiction… (more)