This film concerns a Scandinavian gentleman who works in film, perhaps as a sort of financier/director/producer. He lives in Thailand with his Thai girlfriend, and most of the film is an exploration of that relationship. We also see her brother, and a gangster that he works for.
I think there's some films where you really have to provide health warnings. Soi Cowboy, although I absolutely loved it, is a film that few will appreciate, even many film buffs and art-house lovers, simply for reasons of mise-en-scène let alone content (includes full frontal male nudity).
There is, for example, a very long static scene, which consists of an old lady, who is not part of the storyline at all, slowly shuffling down an empty hotel corridor on a Zimmer frame, that makes the arrival of the trailer in Werckmeister Harmonies feel positively explosive by comparison. You have to approach scenes like that with the same amount of contemplation you give a painting, they are that long because it takes that long to absorb what is happening, assuming that you are aware that you have to make that effort. Director Clay put me in mind of that woman's stoicism, her aloneness, her acceptance, and her confusion. This is blue ribband humanism. It is also, without a doubt, springing from extreme virtuosity. If you are not utterly inured to "active watching", you will find yourself taking a beating watching this movie and such scenes.
If you have any sort of intolerance problems regarding obesity, and let's face it, that's the majority of people, you will have a lot of difficulty watching the obese lead, from whom we see full frontal nudity and at one point masturbation (under a bed cover).
The movie somersaults styles, you have really formal, and even abstract, rail-smoothed black and white pans, and then at other times we're static, or the film goes to hand-held and colour. Sometimes the scenes are slow, later quick, it really is a totally acrobatic movie. An analogy that occurs to me is three-day eventing, you have to see the dressage, the cross-country, and then the show jumping. Very different disciplines, just like the three sections of this movie.
Not only is the film profoundly humanistic, but it's also mystical (for example the scene with the butterfly), and at the end, depending on your interpretation, just downright Lynchian. The ending also has a much more down-to-earth interpretation, but I really feel that the duality is important, and that you can get something out of either way of looking at the ending. So my suggestion is to accept the duality. Although the film is humanistic, British viewers (the film is made by a Brit), may well come at it from a prejudicial standpoint, as there is a lot of baggage regarding sex tourism in Thailand in this country.
Another of the laundry list of potential stumbling blocks is that the first forty minutes of the film are so superficially banal that almost everyone would turn off or walk out if they suspected that such a state of affairs were to last until the film's end. You could be mistaken for thinking that this part of the film looks amateurish. That would be because of the lack of lighting used, in favour of a naturalistic look. In fact this section of the film works much better in retrospect, when you have the other elements in mind.
There's a lot of comment on culture clash. At one point Toby buys Koi a gold chain. Koi wants to know how much it costs. In the Western European bourgeois culture of Toby, such a question is an affront; but it isn't coming from Koi. When you live in a culture where there is no safety net, jewellery is a store of liquid value for emergencies, the sentimental value is inseparable from that. Understanding that Thai women value providers a lot more than western women is also quite difficult.
The level of experimentation gives me real hope for cinema. I just can't believe how beautiful the film became after the initial (necessary) ennui. There are scenes where Toby and Koi visit some temple ruins that just staggered me; when the visit is over and the gates are locked, the view floats through the darkened temple park, apropos of nothing, absolutely nothing, there for art's sake alone, storytelling be damned; a moped ride in the countryside reveals an absolute riot of green cascading from right to left across the screen, pure painterly skills being showcased; a simple solitary dinner on a boat captivates, our oddball couple alienated, communicating through a language that is not the first language of either of them, even disliking the food and disputing with the staff. But there's a heartbreaking kernel of affection there.
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