Karaoke Girl: This ‘true’ telling of a bar girl’s life seems too good to be true

At one point in Karaoke Girl, the protagonist prostitute named Sa, who has her heart broken by regular customer Ton, throws his THB500 bills out her window. Despite struggling to pay for her father’s hospital bills, Sa decides in a metaphor-straining moment for the sake of her pride.

The moment has its charm and earns an emotional response from the audience, but are we to believe the “real” Sa would reject an chance to pay for her father’s doctor? This illustrates the only problem with Karaoke Girl: Its efforts to “keep it real” conflict with its desire to tug at the heart-strings with a dramatic story.

Karaoke Girl is a part-fiction-part-documentary film by US-born, Thai director Visra Vichit Vadakan. It follows the life of Sa Sittijun, a real 23-year-old woman of the Bangkok night with family baggage up in Nong Khai. And the Sa in this film is really Sa — not an actress. The film has received attention abroad after it premiered to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January this year.

Jumping between documentary and screenplay, Karaoke Girl introduces us to Sa’s individuality. By smoothly blending those two devices, the audience’s perception of the story is seen through the Bangkok bar girl’s point of view.

Sa in the documentary part mainly sets in her rustic hometown. The director followed Sa to Nong Khai when she visited her family during Songkran festival. The real scanty farm and rural way of life are well-presented through the lens. On camera, Sa takes a joy of seeing her people who perceive her as “successful” and “cultured” – the rich girl who never forgets her village. The question of how Sa makes a living remains unspoken, even up to the point Sa’s cheerful aunt welcomes her with five words: “Can I have some money?” Sa laughs and enjoys the hero-of-the-farm portrayal.

The movie is authentic when it returns to Bangkok to recreate Sa’s nightlife. Perched on her shoulder, we follow her back into her humble apartment and watch as she puts on her makeup and clothes, transforming into a style readily seen on Soi Patpong. But when it comes to how she is characterized, it’s just not believable. In what seems to be an attempt to communicate her individuality and emotions, Sa makes amateurish, anguished faces while trying to engage a customer at the karaoke bar.

Sa Sittijun in real life, seems to be a well-mannered, optimistic, and passive young girl trying to bring her family a better life. She puts others above herself and is willing to live a miserable life in Bangkok to support her family at home. Meanwhile, her fictional reflection is more expressive and leaves audience to question what is real.

The documentary excels as a portrait-cum-exposé of the many rural girls who are forced into the dirty business because of poverty. The difficult life in the idyll displayed on camera is presented well enough to prompt audiences to wonder: Without an education and opportunity, what would you do and how far would you go if the responsibility to feed six family members fell to you?

Karaoke Girl has gained recognition abroad, and it deserves attention at home in Thailand where people occasionally come face-to-face with the ladies of the night and might not be able to see them without seeing past our own preconceptions and the outer shields that mask their true emotional lives.

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