I must admit that just as I have amusicality for most country music. I also have an inability to appreciate most of what comes out of a few film/TV genres. Case in point, I have what I’ll call an a-generic aversion to the soap opera genre. I love my mother, but when I am home visiting, as much as I will sit through hours of Food Network and HGTV shows and sporting events with her, she knows I have to leave when it’s time for the grating sands through the hourglass that is The Days of Our Lives. There is something about the camera cuts and angles, the claustrophobic sets of the outdoors, the low-lighting, the vengeful dialogue, and the shifty plots that make me cringe as if I’m watching the equivalent of listening to mainstream Nashville fare. Imagine how atonal music irritates the average listener, and that’s what it’s like for me to watch a soap opera.
But since I hate people who rail against me for not having the enzyme that makes onions tasty, I will not engage in ridiculing the Thai lesbian soap opera that is a full length feature She: tHEiR Love Story simply because it’s a soap opera. (But can I ridicule how the cheeky spelling of ‘their’ to awkwardly extract the acronym ‘her’ within just does not work?) I won’t even ridicule the karaoke-esque montages since I would argue that karaoke-videos are a variant of the soap opera genre. Much of how the film doesn’t work for me is tied up with how soap operas don’t work for me. So rather than ridicule the soap opera, I will accept the genre and its tropes, just as I’ll accept the need to program a diverse docket of films at this year’s Frameline 37, The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, where it will be screening this year.
What does work for me though is that the film allows these two lesbian couples to simply be, to exist as possible futures, rather than as trysts or excursions along the hegemonically-imposed road towards heterosexual conformity. (Some might argue one couple is not allowed to exist, but that would require me to reveal a major plot point. All I’ll say in my defense obstructed by not wanting to ‘ruin’ the plot is that there are two couples here, one buffering the other that might be deemed more of the same old queer cinema. In spite of what happens with the other couple, though, I still feel it presents a future, not a temporary relationship, but again, that’s all I can say here.) Considering how Sayew (2003), a better Thai film in terms of narrative and style, had to disappear its tomboy due to hegemonic demands, I am going to give She: tHEiR Love Story props for opening up the cinematic space for Thai lesbians, the butch and the femme, the old and the young, the confident and the ambivalent. In this way, She: tHEiR Love Story is further demonstration of what Brett Farmer, in his contribution to the thoroughly informative Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Markets, Media, and Rights (ed. Peter A. Jackson, University of Hong Kong Press, 2011), calls Thai gay cinema’s ‘vernacular queerness’, . . . “imagining and giving textual embodiment to the multiple and shifting dynamics of modern Thai homoeroticisms and non-normative gender/sexual cultures and, by doing so, enabling diverse audience constituencies to apprehend and process these cultures” (p 87). Connecting this quote with my parenthetical in this paragraph, an interconnection between queer cinema and the soap opera genre is clear.
So let’s meet the two impending couples in She: tHEiR Love Story. First there’s Da (Apassaporn Saengthorn), a writer who is put on assignment to investigate the ‘trend’ of women dating women after being violated via media by a man. Da teams up with Be (Kitchya Kaesuwan), a player of a tomboy who owns a dessert cafe and happens to live in the apartment across from Da’s. Their relationship begins as a voyeuristic one, but develops on terms respectful of both characters’ personal dilemmas. (There’s a reconciliation scene between Be and her father that was the highlight for me. It underscores an ancillary purpose soap operas serve to reconcile in fantasy that which we often hope to reconcile in our own lives. Sometimes soap operas, just like TV and cinema in general, act as an escape, but they also can act as inspiration to enact equivalent change in our own lives.) The second coupling is of the May/December variety. Photographer Jane (Ann Siriwan Baker) finds her May self assigned to the December resort owner Bua (Penpak Sirikul). Bua has just divorced her husband, greatly upsetting her daughter, for reasons secret to everyone until later in the film.
The stories go back and forth between the two couples with occasionally forced dialogue and karaoke montage development of their love. Again, Be’s character is the most refreshing for me because she is not wallpaper. She has a developed background in the foreground. She wonders if she will be able to have a longer lasting relationship or if she will be forever relegated to playing the role of the trendy tomboy fling of some femme. Although Fran Martin is speaking specifically about portrayals of female lovers found in popular culture in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in her wonderful book Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2010), I wonder if this statement by Martin about the tomboy applies throughout cinema more broadly – “. . . the tomboy’s future has been strictly unimaginable; overwhelmingly, tomboy characters have tended either quietly to fade from narrative focus as the story progresses or to disappear by more dramatic means (most commonly untimely death)” (p. 27). Be doesn’t disappear here; she is brought fully into focus and is as much of a full-fledged character as any character can be in the soap opera genre.
In spite of all that I appreciated about She: tHEiR Love Story, I still found it an a-generic discomfort to watch at times, but again, that’s just me. If you’re a lover of the soap opera genre like my mother and will be in San Francisco in late June, you might enjoy checking out one of the two screenings at this year’s Frameline 37
Saturday June 22nd at 9pm at the Roxie on 16th in the Mission District of San Francisco