Film

A Film Mixes Fact and Fiction to Illuminate the Lives of Queer Teens in Bangkok

‘#BKKY’ is a coming-of-age love story following Jojo, who embodies an amalgamation of interviews the director conducted with 100 Thai teenagers.

Movie poster for #BKKY, from the last scene of the movie (all images courtesy of the director, Nontawat Numbenchapol)

#BKKY’s opening scene is a brilliant five-minute-long single-shot piece of cinematography, taken from underneath a desk. We see only the legs of two young high school girls and hear them talk flirtatiously with one another. One offers a gift, and then — in fantastically awkward teenage dialogue — asks the other out.

I’m excited. It’s going to be an adorable lesbian love story set in Bangkok.

Then the fourth wall abruptly breaks when a third voice enters: the director gently prodding the actresses to play footsy. Is this an outtake? The clapperboard enters the frame, clacks, withdraws — taking with it any assumption about what this story will be and how it will be told.     

Jojo and Q, from the desk scene, but shot from above the desk

I won’t spoil the movie too much. It’s a coming-of-age love story following the character Jojo, who embodies an amalgamation of interviews the director conducted with 100 Thai teenagers, representing a smattering of gender orientations. Jojo is a 17-year-old senior in high school, and we follow her from when she is first asked out in the opening scene by Q, her new, slightly butch girlfriend, to when she applies for college, and beyond.

This is the third film by young Thai director Nontawat Numbenchapol (born in Bangkok in 1983). It weaves a handful of the interviews in with Jojo’s fictional story, with heavy direction from a diary one interviewee gave the director. Nontawat did not have a story in mind for the film prior to the interviews.

Some of the time, the studio interviews appear like context for a documentary, complementing the fictional storyline. At other times, they become background audio. At really magical moments, the two seem to converge and blend, leaving us guessing as to the true parameters of this story: what is fact and what is fiction.

Jojo and Q on vacation

Nontawat manages to make a well-worn plot feel very fresh. #BKKY includes elements of both a melodrama documentary and a queer reality TV show, with all the stories, breakups, and after-scene interviews, but remains distinctly neither. Over the course of the film, the nagging questions of categorization — what is true here? where do documentary and story start and end? — fade as we give in to the film.

A notable example of Nontawat’s prowess as a director is an incredible four-minute shot following Jojo’s meeting with Jasper, an American skater who speaks poor Thai. The single shot follows Jojo jogging with a friend, takes us around a skatepark, then to Jasper spotting her and the two exchanging contact information, and culminates by suddenly flying straight up, giving us a look at the whole scene from about 100 meters. In an abrupt twist in plot and assumed sexual orientation, the scene captures the magical feeling of hope and excitement at the prospect of a new crush, via a drone. I hope this director gets a big budget one day.

Jasper and Jeff in bed

#BKKY recalls Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), an early work by Thailand’s most famous director, Apichatpong Weerasethaku. For that film, Apichatpong traveled around Thailand doing an “exquisite corpse” exercise in filmmaking, allowing locals to direct his plot. Stories grow and then collapse; an overarching plot is hinted at and then takes an absurd turn. Passersby turn into actors, then back into citizens. Somewhere along the way, Mysterious Object at Noon becomes a poetic window into the Thai people, blending fiction and personal stories. 

As Mysterious Object at Noon searches for narrative through the public, #BKKY‘s personal interviews and overarching story hint at powerful sociopolitical forces dominating Thailand, namely the patriarchy. While context and facts vary widely, the dominance and relevance of the patriarchy — in the form of the divine king as well as the father as the head of the household — is a source of much tension throughout the movie. This is most clearly embodied in Jojo’s strict father, who becomes a stand-in for all of the interviewees’ fathers. 

Like Thailand’s strict “lèse majesté” laws, which make criticism of the king highly illegal, Jojo’s father will not tolerate disobedience. His patriarchal demeanor, and its metaphor for the state, is embodied in his job: selling military and police uniforms. Jojo meets all of her father’s attempts at control with various measures of disinterest, disregard, and outright contempt. This makes the film both a classic coming-of-age story, as well as a unique view of the specifics of life in Bangkok.

Jasper at the airport

There is a beautiful moment when Jojo and Q are in a fight that, to me, embodies the tension between the desired affect and the lived reality of political life. The two teens sit silently in a park, close but clearly feeling quite distant from one another. A loudspeaker broadcast of the Thai national anthem begins to play — as it does daily at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. — and many people in the park stand in loyalty and allegiance. Our subjects do not rise. In fact, they, along with several other teenagers in the background, do not seem to notice at all. It’s a clear indication that the state imagines its power to reach much further than it ever truly does. 

The movie ends with Jojo’s interview beginning again. This time, however, we see the lights, the microphones, and the darkened stage, and Jojo’s face is blocked by the interviewer preparing the shot. We are looking at the hardware, the material construction behind the story that has just enraptured us. Jojo brazenly bends out from behind the camera and gives the viewers a knowing grin. She, the actress Ploiyukhon Rojanakatanyoo, knows exactly who she is in this film — and we do too. The story collapses in on its own telling, but the ride, filled with small windows into the realities and stories of being a queer teenager in Bangkok, was delightful.

#BKKY will be screened on March 26 during the GLITCH Film Festival at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, and on April 8 at Wicked Queer Festival in Boston.

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