Dir/scr Thomas Clay. Thailand/UK. 2008. 117 mins.
Young director Thomas Clay is one of the very few figures in current British cinema who can justifiably be described as a maverick. Clay’s debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael - seen in Critics’ Week in 2005 - won him admirers, but also saw him attacked for that film’s use of extreme violence. Shot in Thailand, Soi Cowboy will similarly divide viewers but is a sure-footed, deliberately-paced feature that boldly wrong-foots us in the final stretch.
Commercially, however, Soi Cowboy is unlikely to make much of a mark, although festivals may be intrigued by this distinctive anomaly.
An opening shot in grainy black-and-white sketches the relationship of obese Scandinavian Tobias (Bro, creepy yet touchingly vulnerable) and Koi (Thampanyasan), a young Thai woman who’s pregnant, although whether by him is unclear. They share a Bangkok flat ut have little to say to each other, and while Tobias is apparently besotted by her, she seems to have no interest in him except as a live-in revenue stream.
Their relationship is sexual, Tobias sustaining himself on Viagra, although Koi tells a friend she finds his attentions a nuisance.
Little happens in the opening hour - and indeed, after a painstakingly slow opening in the couple’s apartment, it’s a full 25 minutes before the film’s sparse dialogue even kicks in. Later on, the couple visits an out-of-town tourist spot, and it becomes apparent that the awkward Tobias is unsuccessfully involved with cinema. Little happens on the trip, however: there’s an extended digression involving an old lady hobbling along with a Zimmer frame, seemingly designed to amuse and infuriate the audience in equal measure. There’s also a key conversation in Thai between Koi and a waitress - without subtitles, to remind us that Tobias is very much a fish out of water in this culture.
After an hour, however, the couple temporarily drops out of the picture, as the film shifts into vivid colour and a looser, more documentary-like camera style, by contrast with the long takes and largely fixed shots of the Bangkok section. A young man, Cha (Mekoh), seemingly Koi’s younger brother, returns to his village. It’s at this point that a startling piece of violence occurs - handled much more discreetly and effectively than in Clay’s first film - and the story winds up in a sequence that may be fantasy, but is certainly indebted to David Lynch.
Some viewers may well take against Clay’s unashamed cinephile tendencies: the slow takes and camera crawls of the film’s first part echo Bela Tarr, while there are also nods to Reygadas’s and no escaping comparisons with Thai innovator Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Syndromes and a Century was also shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Indebted as he may be, though, Clay clearly thinks about cinema in a way that few British directors do.
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