Karaoke Girl (Sao Karaoke): Rotterdam Review

Karaoke Girl - H 2012

Karaoke Girl - H 2012

Engagingly low-key character-study of a lovely but lovelorn Bangkok sex-worker is a sensitively empathetic eye-opener.

Newcomer Sa Sittijun plays herself in U.S.-born director Visra Vichit Vadakan's drama-documentary hybrid from Thailand, premiering in competition at Rotterdam.

The melody is familiar but the voice is fresh in Karaoke Girl, a languidly intimate peek into the life of a Bangkok night-town denizen. This independent Thai production, a debut feature from U.S.-born writer-director Visra Vichit Vadakan, isn't the edgiest or most innovative film among the 16 competing for the Tiger awards at this year's Rotterdam. But the unfussily beguiling way it combines documentary and fiction elements certainly ranks this 35mm presentation among the most accomplished.

Scheduled for a limited release at home later this year, it's an accessible example of East Asian cinema that could with proper handling find a distribution niche in Europe or North America, and plentiful festival bookings should follow in the wake of its high-profile Rotterdam bow.

Born in the States, writer-director Vichit Vadakan moved to Bangkok at age 9 then returned to study at Stanford University -- where she met her future husband, Facebook vp Chris Cox -- and then Tisch School of the Arts in New York. Her international crew includes the vastly experienced American cinematographer Sandi Sissel, whose credits stretch back to the 1970s and include numerous big-budget Hollywood productions. This perhaps partly explains the professional assurance that marks Karaoke Girl from its dreamily torpid opening, a quiet confidence that's somewhat surprising to encounter from a director who has only a small handful of shorts to her name.

Vichit Vadakan elicits an utterly believable "performance" from newcomer Sittijun, who plays a lightly fictionalized version of herself: a 23-year-old from the rural northeast who has been earning her living in the capital Bangkok for eight years. Initially toiling in a factory, the attractive and poised Sa found more rewarding employment as a "hostess" in one of the tumultuous city's dark and claustrophobic karaoke bars, where the male customers expect more than just a song or two for their money. And while the picture is discreet to the point of coyness about Sa's after-dark activities, there's never any ambiguity about how she makes ends meet. 

But selling sex and finding love are of course two very different things, and Sa's ongoing search for Mr. Right leads her to spend her leisure time with the charming but untrustworthy Ton (Supavich Mepremwattana). Much more interesting than these bittersweet quasi-romantic interludes, however, are the bracingly straightforward documentary interludes in which Sa returns to her native area and reminisces about her idyllic childhood in this unspoiled zone of rivers and forests.

Sa's real family and neighbors also appear -- one of the latter remarking "even though she is successful, she doesn't forget her village!" -- and it's much to the credit of all concerned, especially editors Perry Blackshear and Saranee Wongan, that the various strands of the movie flow together with such unobtrusive elegance. Water in various forms is indeed a constant leitmotif, the flood-drenched streets of Bangkok through which Sa disconsolately trudges providing ironic echoes of the mighty, muddy watercourse which defined her earliest memories.

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Competition), Jan. 28, 2013
Production company: Hidden Rooster
Cast: Sa Sittijun, Supavich Mepremwattana, the Sittijun family
Director / Screenwriter: Visra Vichit Vadakan
Producers: Pornmanus Rattanavich, Pran Tadaveerawat
Co-producer: Samina Akbari
Executive producer: Sandi Sissel
Directors of photography: Chananun Chotrungroj, Sandi Sissel
Music: Koichi Shimizu
Production designer: Songwat Assawanonda
Costume designer: Buangoen Ngamcharoenputtasri
Editors: Perry Blackshear, Saranee Wongan
Sales agent: Hidden Rooster Films, Bangkok
No MPAA rating, 77 minutes