The Good Woman of Bangkok

1991, NR, 82 min. Directed by Dennis O'Rourke. Starring Yaiwalak Chonchanakun.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 4, 1992

If there's anyone Aoi (Chonchanakun) hates more than herself, it's men as a whole. Aoi is a Thai prostitute, her nickname means “sugar cane” or “sweet.” In the film's opening credits, Australian documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke writes: “The filmmaker was forty-three and his marriage had ended. He came to Bangkok, the mecca for Western men with fantasies of exotic sex and love without pain. He wanted to meet a Thai prostitute and make a film about her.” On his first night there he met Aoi in a girlie bar in the notorious Patpong district of the city and paid for her to stay with him all night. She becomes his film subject and he becomes her client, lover and director. By day, he films her as she sits facing the camera telling him her life story. By night, she plies her trade. Born into a poor peasant family with an alcoholic father and an untreated birth defect that has left her blind in one eye, Aoi spent her adolescence in indentured servitude and then made a bad marriage to a man who deserted her when she was two months pregnant. She returns to her village and following the death of her father and the birth of her son, Aoi's mother pushes her to move to Bangkok and work as a prostitute to earn money to support their family and pay off their debt. She's been exploited and victimized all her life: by her family, her pimp, and the foreign male imperialists who invade her body. As recompense for her film work and continued sexual services, O'Rourke has promised to buy her a rice farm. It's an ideal position for examining the conjunctions of sex and money, capitalism and its discontents and the gulfs separating the First and the Third Worlds. The more he comes to know Aoi, the deeper O'Rourke's feelings for her grow. Yet we never know if pleasing her director and benefactor is substantially any different than satisfying one of her johns. Like many artists and filmmakers before him, O'Rourke is fascinated by prostitution as a metaphor. Clearly, The Good Woman of Bangkok is modeled after Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan which uses the central figure of a prostitute to explore the possibility of living a good life in an evil world. And, indeed, Aoi is haunting: her beauty, her anger, her internalized self-hatred, her mysteries, her stoicism, her pain. O'Rourke in a couple of places curiously associates her image with a Mozart aria but to my mind he's more effectively created some kind of enigmatic “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” O'Rourke's mistake is that he removes himself from the equation. He is never onscreen and his voice rarely intercedes. There is much that he leaves out of the story -- the pimps, the street realities, the precise details of his own involvement. But he is smart enough as a filmmaker to know that these glaring omissions do not obliterate our curiosity. In fact, they may further provoke and arouse it and that may just be what he's after. The Good Woman of Bangkok is a perplexing and provocative film whose game is to generate more questions than it answers and the answers it dodges, in turn, generate more questions.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

The Good Woman of Bangkok, Dennis O'Rourke, Yaiwalak Chonchanakun

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