In a global economy defined by competition and connectivity, most professionals have anecdotes about “pulling an all-nighter” to deal with “crunch time”, which often revolve reverting back to student habits such as consuming large quantities of Red Bull in order to meet a pressing deadline. For the average white collar worker, such measures are necessary at certain times, with the body getting a well-earned rest as soon as the task at hand has been completed to their manager’s satisfaction, but for the perpetually busy Bangkok creative in Freelance, life is a never-ending series of assignments that must be submitted promptly yet perfectly. Indeed, graphic designer Yoon (Sunny Suwanmethanont) moves from one commercial job to another with such haste that his advertising industry contact Je (Violette Wautier) sometimes has to drop off takeaway meals when collecting files as he does not even have time to go on a food run.
Freelance opens with Yoon firing on all cylinders, boasting of “super powers” that enable him to stay up for five-days straight and always deliver work that meets the exacting standards of his corporate clients. However, he’s forced to consider the negative long-term impact of this routine on his thirty-something body when he is made aware of a rash on the back of his neck, which is soon followed by itchy inflammation on the rest of his body. Yoon visits an expensive private doctor but balks at taking the prescribed medication as it induces sleep and will therefore hinder his productivity, so instead joins the winding line for patients at the public hospital in search of a cheaper solution with less professionally damaging side effects. Young resident doctor Imm (Davika Hoorne) also insists that Yoon takes the necessary pills, go to bed no later than 9pm, and exercise daily, none of which thrills the workaholic freelancer. Yet he makes an effort to follow Imm’s instructions, albeit half-heartedly at first, because he feels an unspoken connection with her based on their shared pressures and easy rapport. With his feelings for Imm growing with each visit, Yoon starts to take his physical condition more seriously while looking or signs that his attraction may be mutual.
Writer and director by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit has become known internationally for his festival friendly independent features 36 (2012), a wonderful piece of observational cinema comprised of 36 static shots, and Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy (2013), which somehow adapted a series of teenage Tweets into a touching coming of age narrative. Jumping into the mainstream by working with Thai studio GTO – purveyors of such local box office hits as The Teacher’s Diary (2014), The Swimmers (2014), and I Fine…Thank You Love You (2014) – Thamrongrattanarit pulls off the rare feat of appealing to a bigger crowd while keeping his indie credentials intact. The film’s international title of Heart Attack may be somewhat groan inducing, but also indicates how Thamrongrattanarit uses a romantic-comedy premise, complete with obligatory ‘meet cute’, to address the issue of work/life balance that is highly relevant to the upscale young professionals who probably comprise much of his target audience. It would be more accurate to describe Freelance as a black comedy as the anticipated romantic element is always kept slightly at bay with Yoon looking forward to his appointments with Imm but unable to take things beyond doctor/patient relations – only one scene between the will they/won’t they pair takes place outside of her office or the examination room.
Instead, the thrives on a deadpan sense of humour which stems from Yoon’s ‘time equals work’ perspective of the world, as conveyed through voice-over, often a lazy tool for character exposition but here entirely appropriate as the main protagonist spends so many hours alone. His only human interactions for extended periods are phone calls from Je for project status updates or trips to the 7-11 where he chats to nightshift clerk Kai (Nottapon Boonprakob) while picking up shrimp dumplings. Thamrongrattanarit has yet to make a scary movie, but images of rashes breaking out on Yoon’s skin and a shot of his spot-ridden back after he tries to complete a two-month job in less than half the time suggest that he’s familiar with ‘body horror’, briefly pushing the film into disturbing territory not suggested by its premise. One of the biggest laughs comes from the cultural ramifications of being deadline driven with Yoon attending the funeral of a friend’s father, only to plug his laptop into a plug near the coffin and ask the attendant monk if the temple has Wi-Fi.
Yoon may think that freelancing is a way to maintain his independent spirit (he wears T-shirts emblazoned with logos of iconic rock bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth) but Thamrongrattanarit makes it clear that he’s actually a disposable tool in a sector that has little loyalty. From his feverish depiction of epic work sessions, as time is at once gained and lost, its evident that the filmmaker is referring to personal experience, and although he takes his alter-ego to a point of realization, he is also quick to point out that it’s all too easy to fall back into bad habits.
Although it would be a shame if he completely abandoned the arthouse experimentation of his early features, Freelance shows that Thamrongrattanarit has a knack for telling personal stories in marketable packages and should further establish him as one of Thai’s cinemas brightest talents.