Sad Beauty (Thailand, 2018) [NYAFF 2018]

Among the handful of women whose debut/second films are showcased at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is Bongkod Bencharongkul, aka Bongkod Kongmalai or Tak Bongkod for those who know her best as an actress. Though Bencharongkul’s first directorial credit is Angels (2013), Sad Beauty is her debut as a solo writer-director.

The film charts a physical-emotional journey of a friendship between Yo (Florence Faivre) and Pim (Pakkawadee “Am” Pengsuwan). Yo is a model whose career is seemingly on the wane due to her off-work behaviour but could care less about what people think of her or whatever she decides to do in/with her life. Pim, it seems, is Yo’s personal sounding board and assistant, driving her to different places, serving as a chaperone-friend on dates, or accompanying her on clubbing jaunts; what she does for a living is left unsaid. What either of these women do in their everyday lives becomes suddenly irrelevant when they are faced with a murder committed in self-defense. Though they return to their routine lives after the fact, whether or not they like it, such an event has irrevocably tied them to each other more than ever before. Such is the film’s story on paper.

Sad Beauty, however, is another story. Yes, it deploys some of the tropes of the female friendship film (shared hardship, road trip, fallout, illness). At the same time, in the manner of many Thai independent films, a dreamlike quality pervades and this detail helps to create a different portrait of female friendship, and one that refreshingly does not hinge on a man determining the outcome of the film, the friendship, or the women’s identities. The film is in fact a lot more narratively subversive of the female friendship film than one might think if reading a basic description of it.

Contributing to its dreamlike quality is a heavy use of close-ups and handheld camerawork and intermittent slow motion, alongside darkly lit interiors and night scenes, all in the service of enhancing Yo and Pim’s emotional states from one moment to another. For it is their film. If not both, then one or the other appears in all of the scenes, with society very much in the background, even disconnected. It becomes especially so when Yo and Pim return to the latter’s family home one evening after clubbing. Pim’s mother is on the ground, beaten and unconscious, while her stepfather eventually appears like a fairy tale ogre, growling and hitting the young women. In the heat of Pim’s stepfather’s beating of Yo, Pim knifes him. The subsequent shock/adrenaline of the stepfather’s death and the disposing of the body continue the two friends’ long day’s journey into night. They drive deep into secluded woods to consign this crime into waking-up-from-a-dream forgetting.

Of course, forgetting is an impossible task. Yet each of the women has something that demands her attention in the present. For Yo, it is her career. For Pim, it is her life itself and thus much more urgent, as her cancer (established before the killing) progresses. Though one may scoff at such a predictable plot detail, Bencharongkul’s use of female friendship film tropes quietly subverts expectations henceforth. Yes, a murder is committed and it happens because women are physically abused by a man. What else could unfold but this beating and murder determining the lives of these women and vengeful the-enemy-is-man scenes? Yes, Pim discovers that she is ill. What else could follow but sororal pathos, painful but also joyous reminiscing, the two friends forever identified as one? Bencharongkul does not allow the film and her characters these trajectories. The beating and murder do not end up defining the women’s identities, individual or collective. There is simply no time, as Yo must attend to her modeling and Pim the advancement of her illness. An interesting narrative turn, given how much time Bencharongkul devotes to the beating, murder, and body disposal, from Yo and Pim’s arrival at Pim’s home to the moment that the body is last seen in the countryside. Furthermore, Bencharongkul does not write the diagnosis of Pim’s disease as the last word on defining the two women’s friendship. Yo and Pim remain quite individual of each other post-killing, which contrasts with the film’s conventional portrait of friendship during its first twenty minutes.

That the film’s focus is ultimately on the freewheeling Yo instead of the sickly Pim can also be read as against genre. Bencharongkul chooses to not show the moments when she is troubled, only hinted at when she remarks to a colleague that she had a nightmare and could not get back to sleep. Instead, Bencharonkul chooses to show Yo living her life, which means photo shoots, drinking and clubbing, and hooking up with a guy as well as spending time with Pim and her mother or visiting Pim at the hospital. It is as if Bencharongkul, having played with tropes earlier in the film and gotten them out of the way – especially during the friends’ unlikely road trip – can now proceed to other aspects of the women’s characters without being pinned down to one event or thing.

Sad Beauty is showing on July 14 at the New York Asian Film Festival.