'Heartbound' ('Hjertelandet'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

Frustrating.

'Borg McEnroe' director Janus Metz and anthropologist Sine Plambech co-directed this documentary about a community of Thai women in northern Denmark all married to local men.

“It was so dark here, I thought I was in hell,” one of the Thai protagonists of Heartbound (Hjertelandet) says about arriving in Denmark, where she would become one of the over 900 Thai women to marry a local man in northern Jutland. It is a telling remark from someone looking to escape a life of poverty and prostitution back home and is one of the few moments in which it becomes clear the female protagonists might have just traded badly paid sex work for many Western clients for a life of chosen servitude to just one.  

Real-life couple Janus Metz (Armadillo, Borg McEnroe) and anthropologist Sine Plambech investigate this phenomenon in their frequently maddening feature documentary, which is a continuation of their work on TV documentaries From Thailand to Thy (Love on Delivery) and From Thy to Thailand (Ticket to Paradise), from 2007 and 2008, respectively.  

This new work tries to take a longer view, using footage shot over a period of 10 years, though it again places the matchmaker and pioneer Sommai at the center of the narrative. She was the first Thai lady to come to rural northern Jutland some 25 years ago, after her now-husband, Niels, spotted her in the tropical Sodom and Gomorrah Pattaya, where she worked and he was visiting as a sex tourist. Little more than a shrug of the shoulders is made of the unsavory beginnings of their relationship; what that might say about Niels’ character and aptitude for marriage or what Sommai’s reasons might have been for marrying Niels beyond “love,” a nearly impenetrable concept in any relationship where the power balance is so egregiously out of whack. 

One can only assume that Sommai thinks she has done alright for herself, since she has created the same opportunity for literally hundreds of women who followed in her footsteps. But a lot of guesswork is involved and the women portrayed here never become particularly honest or explicit about their feelings, hopes and desires. This could be due to several factors, including the fact they will still be married when the film is released in Denmark, so they might want to avoid ugly doubts or truths to avoid embarrassment or, worse, put their current position in peril. But there is also an external factor to consider. The fact the work is entirely uncritical, at worst, or artfully vague and very selective, at best, is perhaps less surprising if one considers that access to their key protagonist and her network might have been cut off if they had portrayed her work in Denmark as something more complex than an intercontinental dating service and perhaps even something that's morally questionable.  

Including Sommai and Niels, Heartbound roughly follow four couples. Kae, Sommai’s niece, is married to Kjeld and managed to bring over her son Mark. Kae’s older sister, Mong, has married John and works at a local factory so she can send money back home. Basit, almost 50, came to Denmark to marry Frank, though their marriage would fall apart over money issues and Sommai tries to help them. The directors also travel to the village in northern Thailand where Sommai is from and where she finds a lot of the women she subsequently couples to her Danish clients. But like the village in Denmark they call home, only a piecemeal portrait of the place emerges without any sense of the bigger picture. 

Of the four strands, only Kae’s story is really interesting because it is possible to extrapolate some elements and read between the lines. She looks very unhappy on her wedding day, for example, and that’s before one of her casually racist in-laws suggests that they “have absolutely nothing against you.” Mark, who says to his mother that “if you want me to, I will” move to Denmark when he’s small, is a lonesome teenager in culinary school in Denmark by the end of the film. It is telling that it is his fate, a kind of collateral damage from Kae’s decision to marry a Western man, is finally the most touching because he has no filter or agenda and still finds himself in a foreign country trying to build a life for himself in a foreign language. 

The fact the feature was shot over the course of a decade really shows. The footage quality of the oldest material looks terrible and can’t handle big-screen projection at all, though it does get somewhat better over time. Quality issues aside, the cinematography, credited to Henrik Bohn Ipsen, has no cinematic properties or ideas to speak of beyond simply capturing what characters are saying or doing. This is a major letdown after the breathtaking immediacy of Metz’s Armadillo and the nail-biting intensity the camera brought to Borg McEnroe

The score from composer Uno Helmersson also has the strange tendency to accompany the scenes in Thailand with more thriller-like music, as if to suggest the place is full of danger and escape would be the only sane option. The Danish scenes often get a more treacly musical treatment, as if the windswept, hellishly gray skies of Jutland were the perfect backdrop for a romantic idyll. That said, at the small get-togethers of Thai women in Denmark, one of the recurring themes seems to be that the rural Danes are often not interested in sex at all, which is yet another fascinating piece of information the filmmakers do very little with.    

Some of the scenes also feel staged, which thus puts the question of authenticity front and center. Sommai and Niels compose a personal ad together in an early scene, for example, but both feel stiff and unnatural. The timing of the event is also unclear. Because they are quibbling about the wording, one assumes that this must be the first time they are doing it. But does this mean Sommai lived in Denmark for 25 years but has only been bringing Thai ladies over for the last decade (when the film was supposedly shot)? This doesn’t quite jibe with what little information we are given elsewhere.

Overall, Heartbound is a frustrating work to watch about a potentially fascinating subject. It raises more questions than it answers, with one of the main questions being what it is the filmmakers really wanted to show and explore. It probably wasn't just the Danish weather.

Production companies: Magic Hour Films, Metz Film, Upfront Films, Baldr Film, Vilda Bomben Film, Film I Vast
Directors-writers: Janus Metz, Sine Plambech
Producer: Lise Lense-Moller
Director of photography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editor: Marion Seraina Tuor, Soren Ebbe
Music: Uno Helmersso
Sales: Autlook Films/Cinetic
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

In Danish, Thai, Laotian
No rating, 90 minutes