Bongkod Bencharongkul's Sad Beauty starts out so well but loses its way in the second act
There's a good film somewhere inside Sad Beauty, though I'm unable to locate its exact spot. It feels like something is on the verge of taking shape out of smoke and mirrors, something that could mean something. But it never is.
This is the second film directed by actress Bongkod "Tak" Bencharongkul (former Khongmalai, as most people still remember her). That she wants to pursue a career as a dramatic film director is bracing; her first film, Angel, has admirers and Sad Beauty has scenes of intimate camaraderie between women that only female filmmakers can grasp. And yet Bongkod, who also wrote the screenplay based on her friend's experience, gets distracted by her own material. A potentially touching story between two friends strays off into a murder mystery, and even an absurdist comedy about a bumbling attempt to hide a corpse, before doubling back to the friendship drama of the first act. It's a shame none of this coalesces into anything substantial.
In a story vaguely set in the 1990s, Florence Vanida plays Yo, a supermodel, and Pakkawadee Pengsuwan plays Pim, her best friend. Yo is sexy, with sculpted cheekbones, high heels and catwalk gait, a self-indulgent creature often caught in the tabloid spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Pim, on the contrary, is plain looking, practical, a little annoying (or a lot, depending on how you interpret Pakkawadee's acting), and yet she's an emotional anchor to Yo's wayward, spoiled behaviour. They party, check out guys, take drugs -- there's a big warning at the start of the film that, of course, drugs are bad -- and then it all comes crashing down when Pim is diagnosed with cancer.
Bongkod captures the spirit of female intimacy, how two women go beyond simple bonding into a kind of metaphysical understanding, either in the strobe light of a nightclub or in a naked shower. And we thought that was the movie. Instead, the midsection of Sad Beauty -- the title supposedly refers to Pim -- veers off into a dark road trip during which Yo and Pim, after committing a crime, clumsily attempt to find a way to dump a dead man's body, which leads them to a cabin in the wood and a crocodile-infested swamp. They bicker along the way as tensions rise, but the earlier moments of drama are swallowed up by the menacing shadow.
That road trip in itself isn't a bad one; it just disrupts the structure of the narrative, throwing us off, short-circuiting our responses, and when the third act resumes where the film left off in the first 30 minutes we struggle to find our way back in.
Bongkod's film was produced by Kongkiat Khomsiri, an established action film director and scriptwriter, as well as by her husband, former telecom chief Boonchai Bencharongkul, who's also listed as a production designer here. In the context of the global film industry's race to address gender equality, it's refreshing to have a former actress taking up the challenge of getting in the director's chair, and to make a film centred on women. But that's not enough: Bongkod has the confidence and support, but she needs a stronger script and a tighter narrative structure. Sad Beauty is disappointing but we'll look forward to her next one.