Pregnant with the lovechild of one of her customers, ex-Soi Cowboy prostitute Koi sits around watching daytime soaps. Her boyfriend, Tobias, an overweight Dane, gives her an elephant plushie and a gold bracelet for which he paid too much at MBK Center. She eats rice with pla too mackerel, he eats toast. At night in bed, she turns away from him.
“He thinks about sex too much. It makes me want to die,” she tells her brother, when he asks about her living situation.
Film enthusiasts gathered to watch Thomas Clay’s 2008 film “Soi Cowboy” on Saturday, at the Thai Film Archive out in the sticks of Bangkok’s far west. In a panel discussion after the screening, the film’s producer said “Soi Cowboy” remains an accurate portrayal of many Thai-farang relationships, even a decade later.
“The film hasn’t really aged,” producer Tom Waller said. “You see the same kinds of relationships between foreigners – not just Europeans – who come to Thailand and Thai women.”
Tobias and Koi “love each other, but for different reasons,” Waller explained. For the producer, their bare communication contains “poignant reminders” of the dynamics of many relationships he has witnessed.
“They may have communication, language, and cultural barriers…I don’t think it’s a problem. It’s just the way we choose to be in a relationship with someone from another culture,” he said. “There are ladies who get pregnant and decide to live their lives with these men because they find that, in the end, they might have a lot in common.”
Waller added that the interracial relationship shown in film isn’t intended to be specific to Thailand, but is “universal.”
The first half of the film explores the minutiae of the relationship between Tobias (Nicolas Bro) and Koi (Pimwalee Thampanyasan) in monotonous, almost-silent, black-and-white. He suggests a trip to Ayutthaya in which she’s almost too lazy to show interest. A waitress insults Koi, her words laced with negative assumptions about bar girls. Toby only perks up when hearing the word “farang” and “AIDS” in the exchange.
“What was that all about? Farang this, farang that?” he asks.
“She know I bar girl, they look me no good,” Koi replied. “I tell her I work hotel.”
Only in the second half, which explores the story of Koi’s brother Cha, does the film burst into color. Waller said that this part is a film-within-a-film made by Tobias, a filmmaker himself, inspired by his life with Koi.
The screening of Soi Cowboy was part of the ongoing “Exotic Thailand?” film festival, which showcases films made about Thailand by foreigners. Curator Putthapong Cheamrattonyu said that Soi Cowboy stands out against many of the other films on show, which focus on Thailand as a tourist destination, the country’s natural landscapes, and Thai women.
“It’s not an exotic way of looking at Thailand. Soi Cowboy was literally filmed at the director’s Bang Na condo,” Waller said.
Deputy director of the Thai Film Archive and well-known film critic Kong Rithdee added that Thai films rarely explore the dynamics of Thai-farang relationships.
“There’s definitely not a big demand in the Thai market, but it’s of interest to foreigners,” Kong said.
Waller said they cast the roles to keep the film realistic, albeit slightly exaggerated.
“We know that foreigners love the look of rural, Isaan women. If we chose a Chinese-looking Bangkok face, we wouldn’t be able to sell the film,” Waller said.
Waller recalled that after the film was screened at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, government censors asked him to cut two scenes or risk the film being banned in Thailand. One scene showed Toby’s penis for too long (“They said six seconds was too much, so we cut it down to two seconds”) while another showed a mafia hitman carrying a severed head while standing in a movie theater for the King’s anthem.
“They said I was using the King as a method to sell the movie. So that part was cut,” Waller said.
The censors also asked him to cut out all shots where the King’s portrait was visible in the background, but film staff insisted that it was only natural that his portrait be depicted in houses. These scenes stayed.
Thai-Irish Waller observed that foreign films about Thailand generally try to include three elements: Thai women, elephants, and monks.
“It’s like if a Thai crew made a film in France, there would be a shot of the Eiffel Tower for sure,” Kong said.
Waller, whose company De Warrenne Pictures often helps foreign film crews find shooting locations in Thailand, spoke of the job’s specific challenges.
“Sometimes film crews want to stay in a five-star hotel in Bangkok, while also wanting to film in the jungle,” he said. He has to convince them to trek to rural provinces, or find a compromise.
De Warrenne Pictures has produced films such as “The Last Executioner,” “The Elephant King,” and “Patong Girl.”
Waller has also been wrestling with the government censorship board in the leadup to the November release of his upcoming film, “Nang Non,” about the rescue of 13 boys and their football coach from Luang Cave. Since he could not get in contact with the boys, the film will be focused on the rescuers instead.
“It’s told from the point of view of unsung heroes, people not in the news,” Waller said. He mentioned the film includes the stories of an Irish diver who aided the rescue, an American who was on-site, and farmer Mae Bua who allowed the water pumped from the cave to flood her fields.
“I feel like it’s an important story,” Waller said.