Katsuya Tomita’s Bangkok Nites is the most beautiful film I’ve seen this year. It’s a groundbreaking study of the phenomenology – not only the structures – of globalisation, and that rarest of things: a piece of art that is resolutely of its time, while making the world appear wholly new.
A former truck driver who shot his first films either during weekends or holidays, Tomita spent four years in Bangkok with his collective Kupplung, a gang of friends and self-declared “tribe of filmmakers”. They focused on Thaniya Road, a well-known street where sex workers cater to the needs of Japanese clients. There are no professional actors in Bangkok Nites. No sex scenes are shown.
At its most basic, this is a story about Luck, who sells sex to support her extended family in the Isan region on the Laotian border. Her relatives rely on the money, more perhaps than they need to, but they also disapprove of her job. “No money, no life,” she wryly observes at one point. But her first words – “Bangkok … shit” – already suggest a darkness, echoing Martin Sheen’s “Saigon … shit” at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. In the first of its three hours, we see her dumping a clingy client, Osawa, a Japanese drifter who was dispatched to Cambodia for a humanitarian mission when he was a soldier in his country’s self-defense forces. That, however, is far from the end of their story: Tomita abjures judgement on his protagonists and the perspective of the film broadens accordingly.
Tomita weaves together various manifestations of interconnectivity and separation that shaped Southeast Asia: gender relations and their power differentials, the wealth disparities between the expatriate Japanese johns, pimps, and future property developers we see on screen, and the shadow of the Vietnam War. Bangkok was one of the “rest and recuperation” destinations where the US sent G.I.s, often for a period of five days, to help them unwind from combat stress: it was the big bang for sex tourism and drug trafficking in the city. Recent attempts such as ASEAN sought to unite the region through economic integration. The legacy of French Indochina also flares up in the film: a minor character, Charles, who constantly drones on about American colonialism epitomises everything that is pathetic about Gallic masculinity. Pol Pot and the international efforts to rid Cambodia of his regime brought Osawa to Southeast Asia. All these things are there and yet the film wears this historical baggage incredibly lightly.
Tomita succeeds in his depiction of globalisation where Iñárritu failed in the dismal Babel. Contemporary philosophy, the posturing of the analytic crowd notwithstanding, is in bad shape. That is and cannot be a good thing. No Hegel has emerged to do justice to the enmeshment that characterises today’s world: the Weltbild of globalisation is impoverished, the accounts of its theorists frequently little more than laughable PR. The consequences are far-reaching.
“Everything is connected” could be the official slogan for the state of our entanglements, the network its concept, the web its image borrowed from the natural realm. As a description of how lives are lived and the way in which globalisation is experienced, it is less than satisfactory. As Babel demonstrates, it also makes for pretty bad art. Jeremy Adelman recently issued a stern admonition to his fellow global historians. If they continue to focus exclusively – but did they, really? – on the dense texture of relations that has emerged over the last forty years or so, they risk losing sight of all those who have fallen through the holes of the net. (And you end up with Trump, Adelman implies.)
Tomita’s globalisation starkly differs from the hallowed consensus. Interdependence is intimated but may be illusory. Interactions are possible but often forgotten, disappearing into a haze. An unmoored strangeness rears its head everywhere. Multiple encounters quickly fade as life continues its course. Pointing to the reality of interconnectivity is one thing, paying attention to these gaps and breaches quite another.
None of this narrated in a tragic key. Drugs are ubiquitous, and in some cases, as with Luck’s mother, take a heavy toll. They are never condemned. In one scene, when Luck and Osawa travel to the village where her family lives, Luck’s brother passes around a joint while reggae music blares from bad speakers. As the camera shifts into slow motion and the cinema screen goes incredibly bright, elation spreads. This is what joy feels like. (Incidentally, most of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film are also set in the Isan region. Tomita befriended him, and Weerasethakul helped Tomita gain a footing in the location, introducing him to many people.)
Tomita initially wanted to become a musician and it shows. I will never forget the Buddhist procession orchestrated by trippy psychedelic rock the monks seems to enjoy a great deal. In another scene, Osawa travels across the Laotian border, where he meets up with a motley crew of sweet-hearted desperados. As they roam across a landscape scarred by bomb craters (the US extended the Vietnam War, illegally and secretly, into Laos, dropping two and half times as many bombs as the Allies rained on Nazi Germany during the Second World War), the camera follows them from behind, hovering two meters above the ground, as in Trainspotting when the four boys go for a jaunt around Arthur’s Seat.
The squad sits down on the edge of a crater, and two rappers from Manila, members of the “Tondo Tribe” – the audience is never told what they are doing in Laos in the first place, at least I don’t remember it – lay out in detail their plan to take over the world. Talk of insurrection freely mingles with aspirations to artistic excellence. Tondo, they explain, is an extremely poor suburb of Manila, but also home to much of the Philippines’ creative talent. Momentarily confused, Osawa asks his host what all this is about. Are they communist guerrilla forces? The interlocutor chuckles. Not quite. They are waiting for the return of the jungle, for verdant nature to recolonize the remnants of war. And then they’ll organise a rave. To radicalise the attendance. To have a good time.
How can a work be so aware of the insistence of history and the economic constraints of the present and yet discover openings at every turn?
Forget about the web, look for the breach.