Love is a many-squalored thing.
That's the thrust of "The Good Woman of Bangkok," a strange and poignant film opening today at the Charles. The movie also played last spring at the Baltimore Film Festival.
This is one of those unvarnished, almost pathetic movies of personal documentation in which the true subject is the filmmaker himself as he comes to grips with his own obsessions. Dennis O'Rourke, an Australian documentarian who acquired a world reputation on the strength of an earlier work, "Cannibal Tours," woke up one day to find his professional life a shambles and his private life a catastrophe. Suffering from post- divorce depression, he decided to lose himself in the fleshpots of the east. Thus he traveled to Patpong, Bangkok's world-famous red light district, and prepared to drown in sex.
Instead he fell in love with a young Thai prostitute whom he paid for sex (as he frankly admits up front). He ended up making a film that is her biography and his autobiography, and an unvarnished examination of their curiously banal relationship. He was no Humbert Humbert and she was no Lolita: instead, the movie presents a portrait of a relationship characterized by his ardency in counterpoint to her indifference.
The camera comes to represent his unblinking obsession: it gazes uncritically at her, drinking up her every move. She is wholly indifferent to it and (by extension) to him. It watches her sleep, yawn, stretch, finding meaning in the most inane gestures. He's clearly around the bend and the movie makes you feel a bit like a voyeur, surely a part of the point of the film. It proves that beauty is in the Thai of the beholder.
Now and then O'Rourke widens the scope: he takes the camera to the young woman's home and there discovers the completely inevitable but nevertheless tragic back story: she's from a poor village with no economic prospects and so took the only path available, which was into prostitution. It's a familiar story, whether the block is on the Block or downtown Bangkok.
Or, he'll tour Patpong, for some longer perspective on the commercial sex industry, as practiced in Thailand. Again, familiar stuff, but remorselessly fascinating as it communicates the utter squalor of all such enterprises.
The documentary is being shown in double-feature with "Lovers," a Spanish film also about prostitution.
'The Good Woman of Bangkok'
Directed by Dennis O'Rourke.
Released by Roxie Distributing Co.