Film Review: Soi Cowboy

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Bottom line: A British director retains a foreigner's distance to his story of interracial relationships in Thailand.

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The dynamics of a mixed-race relationship based on the transaction between economic security and emotional or sexual gratification have seldom been addressed full-on, until "Soi Cowboy." To screenwriter-director Thomas Clay's credit, he neither sensationalizes the relationship nor glamorizes its underworld backdrop. To the film's detriment, he does not dramatize them compellingly either.

Debuting in Cannes' Un Certain Regard provides sufficient cachet to boost "Soi Cowboy's" festival life elsewhere. Commercial prospects are another story. Despite the hints of raciness in the subject, Clay brings nothing new to the table. The low-key delivery and languishing pace will consign public release to small, intimate affairs in Europe, and not necessarily in Thailand at all.

The film is sharply divided into two parts. The first, which is longer, is in black-and-white. The austere beauty of monochrome and the formal compositions of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom ("Syndromes and a Century") lend subtlety to the documentary-like representation. The incongruity of the relationship is not conveyed through conversations, but accentuated by physical differences: one being a corpulent "farang," the other a petite, pregnant Thai girl. A scene in a restaurant where tensions about interracial liaisons flare up is most interesting, but annoying without English subtitles.

The second part follows the homecoming trip of two city-bound brothers, which turns out to be a mafia assignment. Shot with a handheld, in saturated colors, events may or not be the prequel to the first story, adding to the overall air of uncertainty._There are traces of influence by Thai auteurs, most visibly Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, at a further remove, Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Only Clay has blanched the enigmatic aura of the former and the sensuous insouciance of the latter to make it more basic and transparent for Western consumption. Like "Som Tum" (Thai papaya salad) with chili -- it still tastes good but without the bite.

Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard

Cast: Nicolas Bro, Pimwalee Thampanyasan, Petch Mekoh, Natee Srimanta. Writer-director: Thomas Clay. Producers: Joseph Lang, Tom Waller. Director of photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Production designer: Nick Kemp. Music: Art Supawatt
Pull Back Camera/De Warrenne Pictures Co.
Sales: Coproduction Office.
No MPAA rating, 117 minutes.
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