Monday, February 17, 2014

SF Indie Fest ’14: Karaoke Girl

Before New York’s disgraced former congressmen and governors embark on their next vice tour of Thailand, they ought to give some thought to the women working in Bangkok’s redlight district. Sa is one of them, but the extent of her nightclub work is kept somewhat ambiguous in Visra Vichit-Vadakan’s docu-fiction hybid Karaoke Girl (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Francisco Indie Fest.

Sa Sittijun essentially plays herself, a pure-hearted country girl, who came to the city to provide for her family. Initially, she really did work in a factory, but when it closed she was forced to take a hostess job in a karaoke bar. Of course, her family still thinks she is cracking eggs on the assembly line. It is probably more tiring work at the club, requiring constant maintenance. Due to the late hours, Sa also often has close contact with dodgy sorts. In fact, crime is a very real occupational hazard.

Despite all the hardships she endures, Sa gives alms with great frequency. She also sends money home quite regularly and returns periodically to drag her ailing father to the doctor.  In short, she deserves better than the lot she drew in life, most definitely including her unreliable lover, Ton. One can only hope the Thai release for Karaoke and its success on the international film festival circuit will lead to better things for Sittijun.

Clearly, Vichit-Vadakan had up close and personal access to Sittijun’s life (or at least a revealing approximation of it). Yet, since she mostly avoids the lurid aspects of the redlight business, it does not feel as intrusive as it might. Instead, we come to understand “bar girls” must spend time on their laundry and pursue problematic relationships, just like everyone else.

Frankly, Karaoke is the sort of visually arresting docu-straddler These Birds Walk was supposed to be, but fell short of. For one thing, Sa is a far more engaging (and even sympathetic) focal character. Also, the rural backdrops and nocturnal city scenes are considerably more striking than Birds’ visuals. Great credit is due to co-cinematographers Chananum Chotrungroj and the American executive producer, Sandi Sissel (whose credits also include Salam Bombay) for maintaining an intimate focus on Sa, but still capturing a powerful sense of place.

No matter how much of her actual life is reflected on screen, Sittijun expresses a whole lot of emotional truth. Quiet but powerful, with a surprisingly spiritual dimension, Karaoke Girl is recommended for all those concerned with the condition of working women (broadly defined) in the developing world. It screens at the New Parkway Theater (in Oakland) this Thursday (2/20) as part of this year’s SF Indie Fest.