Before writing this article, I did a search on the internet for background information on Dennis O’Rourke, the maker of the film we watched in class this week, “The Good Woman of Bangkok,” and stumbled upon this quote by Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times: “The film itself is an act of love: its ardor, evasions, hypocrisies, idealism, its unhealable wounds... nakedly open, non-exploitive and truly harrowing... a great film.”
Wilmington’s critique as a commercial film is completely understandable. On the surface, the film appears to be an open window into the Thai prostitution circuit. O’Rourke brings his camera into the go-go dance clubs and shows us the faces of unhappy women forced to dance topless and even perform lewd acts on stage. Paired with Opera music, we find these images of false love to be tragic and disgusting. In a separate article, Wilmington goes on to assert that “those who denounce this movie for its displays of nudity or conversations about sex will have foolishly missed the point.”
But as far as approaching the film from an academic standpoint, Wilmington couldn’t be more wrong. O’Rourke throws objectivity out the window, creating a mildly scientific film that is a heavily dramatized, idealistic disapproval of the Asian sex industry as a whole. Aoi’s statements on the complicated life of a sex worker are as contrived as they were depressing. Her constant cries of “I hate men” and “I hate sex” were only amplified by the conversations with the despicable and disillusioned white western clients, which O’Rourke was able to procure because he could so easily identify with them (not so much despicable, but just as disillusioned).
O’Rourke, at the time just reeling from a nasty divorce, decides to travel to Thailand, like many men, to seek the comfort of a Thai prostitute. What makes the women of Bangkok so desirable is the blasé approach the city has to the sex trade and the eagerness at which they aim to please foreigners. O’Rourke meets Aoi, a 25-year-old prostitute and divorced mother of two who has come from a neighboring rural town to make money to support her family. He finds disappointment, heartache and frustration in her tale and chooses to keep her on as a paid companion for the duration of his filmmaking. In return for access to her life story, and the ability to film her daily functions such as riding taxis to meet clients and who knows what else, he promises her a rice farm so that she can make a new life for herself. Unfortunately, O’Rourke makes a mistake that no Anthropologist should ever commit – he failed to understand that most Thai people believe that one’s job, one’s family situation and/or one’s social position is final and cannot be changed; and also that a divorced woman – or worse, a prostitute – is tainted and can never live a normal life. So while his gesture seems genuine, it didn’t surprise me when he revealed at the end of the film (spoiler alert!) that Aoi did not accept his gift and continued to work as a prostitute.
At this point, he makes another grave mistake for a scientific, objective observer: he passes judgment on a woman who, with this understanding of Thai culture, has fully accepted her terrible fate. O’Rourke doesn’t just offer to the audience that she refused to live on the farm and instead chooses return to her life as a sex worker – he says that she works at a “sleazy” dance club in the city. His micro-investment fails and his efforts to hammer home the demoralization of Thai society instead makes O’Rourke look like a scorned lover who finds his selfish efforts at rehabilitating a broken woman unsuccessful. Though he warned us at the beginning of the film of his involvement with Aoi, O’Rourke’s subjectivity became more suspect with this statement.