Nights of a Shared Past

in 69th Locarno International Film Festival

by Fabian Tietke

Thaniya Road:  The red-light district resembles a Japanese extraterritorial area in the center of Bangkok. On a stretch of little more than 200 meters over 200 brothels are lined up catering paid sex exclusively to Japanese clients. Five years after his much acclaimed last film Saudade, Tomita Katsuya returns with Bangkok Nites, exploring the multiple ways in which Japan is intertwined with its neighbor.  Ozawa (played by the director), a former soldier of the Japanese Army and now one of the thousands of Japanese clients, falls in love with Luck (Subenja Pongkorn), a young sex worker who is the top girl at the brothel she is working in. After some time, Luck dumps Ozawa.

Years later they meet again. In spite of Ozawa’s precarious existence Luck starts seeing him again and finally takes her to meet her family in a rural region north of Bangkok. In ephemeral moments of happiness, Luck introduces Ozawa to her family and friends and Ozawa encounters a world he didn’t know of that seems like a paradise to him – equally far away from his life in Japan and Bangkok.

In the countryside of Thailand, Ozawa begins to encounter the ghosts of the past. Not long after their return to Bangkok, his former superior in the army, now involved in a business project, sends Ozawa off to a scouting mission to the Thai-Laotian border. Ozawa keeps drifting north, passing through Vang Vieng, a former CIA base during the Vietnam War. Ozawa finally arrives in Dien Bien Phu, the site of the most important French defeat in the Indochina War. On his way north he passes through landscapes scarred by the wars.

Tomita uses the trips out of Bangkok to set the context not only on a large historical scale but also with regards to the setting Luck and Ozawa have met in. The fixed roles of sex worker and client begin to slip on the trip to Luck’s family. In an interview in the press kit, the director underlines that these trips are not unusual between Thai sex workers and their Japanese clients. However, in Tomita’s film Luck stresses that she has never brought a man home to her family before Ozawa.

The clearly fictional narratives of the trips to the countryside contrast with the almost documentary portraits of the life of sex workers in Bangkok and the city’s Japanese community.  According to Tomita this was the part that took the longest to prepare. Over many years, Tomita and his crew gained the trust of people in Thaniya Road until they finally were accepted enough to allow the shooting. However observational, the scenes shot in Thaniya Road are easily recognized as being clearly structured by a hierarchy of economic power. For decades, solvent Japanese businessmen have followed the US soldiers who came to Bangkok following the US-Thai Rest and Recreation treaty in 1967. The contrasting elements are rather subtly woven together in Bangkok Nites. Ozawa’s discovery of the shared past does not change the hierarchies of the present. He might remain poor throughout the film, but he does not need to be rich to get along, while to Luck, the struggle to earn as much money as possible while she still can seems the only way to deal with the situation. The nights of the shared past fade in the daylight. Though not entirely.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson