Illuminating The Night

Premiering in the Netherlands next week, Thai director Visra Vichit Vadakan's debut feature film walks a delicate line between fact and fiction

Sa wakes up in a daze to find that the man she's shared the bed with has bolted with all her money. Alone she hitches a ride back from the seaside to Bangkok, gets changed, puts on her make-up, and heads straight to work at a florid, neon-swamped karaoke bar, where she sits outside the door below the twinkling signs waiting for male customers who're looking for drinking _ and singing and talking _ company.

Sa Sittijun in Karaoke Girl .

That brisk, tight, nearly wordless opening scene (shot on super 16mm) then gives way to the rugged serenity of a Nong Khai village, Sa's hometown, where we meets her mother, father and family (shot on crisp HD).

And from there Karaoke Girl, the feature debut by Visra Vichit Vadakan that will have its world premiere next week at International Film Festival Rotterdam, performs a tightrope walk between straight fact and familiar fiction, between documentary and drama, between nocturnal Bangkok and poetic Northeast, and in all manages to tell a delicate story of a night woman adrift and in search of an anchor.

Karaoke Girl is one of the two Thai titles that will compete for the Tiger Award in Rotterdam, a respected festival known for its steadfast championing of young filmmakers. The other Thai entrant is 36, a missed-romance musing by Nawapol Thamrongratanarit. Together the two movies augured a good opening for the Thai independent film scene in the first month of 2013.

"From the start I wanted to do a documentary-fiction hybrid," says director Visra, a biology graduate who took up filmmaking in the mid-2000s. "And for a long time I've also been interested in the story of women of the night, because they seem to live in a world so different from mine.

"I'd talked to many karaoke girls for the project, but when I met Sa, I knew I'd found the woman for the film. We shot the documentary part first _ it took us about six months in Bangkok and Nong Khai _ then I wrote a script for the fiction part. By then Sa, who had no acting experience, was no longer shy of the camera, and we went on to shoot the scripted part."

The bargirl narrative in Visra's film is not unpredictable, from the impoverished origin in Isan to the tragic romance with lurid men in the capital _ in fact, the dramatisation part is slightly thin.

But what gives Karaoke Girl a distinctive feel is its strong feminine sensitivity, since the story sticks intimately to Sa's point of view while the image is a continuous attempt to project her experiential worldview. Apparently the major contribution is Sa (real name Sa Sittijun) who has the tricky dual roles of being herself and playing herself in the fact-fiction schema of the film. And even if we try not to overplay the feminist card, it's just worth noting that the film has a strong female presence behind the camera as well: besides director Visra, the film's producer, editor and two cinematographers are also women.

"I wasn't sure about being in the film at first," says Sa. "I wasn't worried about having my personal story up there on the screen. I was worried that these people might be conning me!" she laughs. "It took me two months to get to know them and to say yes, and it turned out to be a very good experience.

"Visra said she's curious about my life because it seems so far from hers. It's the same with me. Being in a movie and working with her team is like going into another world."

Visra's grandfather, Luang Vichit Vadakan, was a famous diplomat, historian, writer and songwriter who penned some of the catchiest nationalistic numbers in the 1940s. Two years ago Visra _ who was born in the US, studied secondary school in Bangkok and got her degree in California _ found herself unwittingly in the headlines when she got married to Chris Cox, a top Facebook executive and Mark Zuckerberg's friend.

Her private ceremony became front-page news when photographers spotted Zuckerberg walking around Thong Lor.

More or less Visra left her biology training behind and put herself into the path of cinema, beginning with the short films Rise and Vacuum, before taking up filmmaking at New York University. Karaoke Girl is actually her thesis film.

Visra, however, credited an epiphanic moment almost a decade ago when a professor cast her, then a biology student, in an experimental film in which she did a dual job of being herself and acting out a fictional role _ very much like what she has asked Sa to do in Karaoke Girl. "The point where fact and fiction touch each other is what interests me the most," she says. "I knew then that I wanted to make films.

"I didn't think that the story of a Thai bargirl is a cliche or not. When I met Sa, it was just inspiring, and I allowed her bring out her voice without interfering with it. When I was shooting the documentary part especially, I felt like I fully entered into her world, and there are moments that feel very special. I think I make films because I want to keep finding that moment."

Karaoke Girl will premier at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on Jan 29. It will be released in Bangkok later this year.

Visra Vichit Vadakan’s first feature film is competing in Rotterdam.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor