September 22, 2018
TIFF Review: ‘Heartbound’ Follows a 9,000 Kilometer Journey for a Better Life
A film ten years in the making, anthropologist Sine Plambech and her director husband Janus Metz’s open a door with Heartbound onto an intriguing humanist story dealing with the complexities of life, love, and survival that spans almost nine thousand kilometers from Thailand to Denmark. The logline is simple: over 900 Thai women have moved to Jutland in order to marry Danes and carve out a better life than is available back home. The motivations for this decision, however, are much more involved. What began twenty-five years ago when Niels Molbæk met his future wife Sommai while vacationing in the Thailand sex district of Pattaya has expanded into a sprawling network built around hope and companionship between lost souls in desperate need of emotional and financial stability.
Plambech and Metz retain focus on Sommai by branching out just far enough to create a legitimate sample size of experiences via those subjects closest to her. This includes two who are already entrenched in the Danish way of life (her niece Mong and friend Basit with their husbands John and Frank respectively) as well as two who are hoping to follow in their footsteps (Mong’s sister Kae and a twenty-three year old resident of their impoverished village named Saeng). We therefore receive an informative juxtaposition between those who’ve gone through the process of escaping past troubles and those currently attempting to achieve that same goal. The latter has two choices: try living with a Danish stranger or pray a foreigner sweeps you off your feet in Pattaya.
I did not anticipate this ultimatum when reading the film’s description. The brevity of its hook comes from its Thai women and Danish men inexplicably building new lives together. There’s optimism in that — a special interest story, feel good puff piece of love forming in the most unlikely of places. It’s not long after sitting down to watch, however, that the truth proves much darker. This isn’t a pen pal network or online dating service. This is very literally life or death. Both Kae and Saeng already have children with men who left them high and dry and Basit was severely beaten by her Thai husband. They’re stuck in poverty with mouths to feed and no easy way to pull themselves out that doesn’t focus on their bodies.
What Sommai provides is an alternative to prostitution despite the offers seeming like a watered-down version of exactly that. Denmark becomes a sort of sanitized and vetted venue with which these women can find support without the dangers associated with what happens in Pattaya. Rather than risk violence and death, these “matches” risk time and money. A marriage must last seven years in order for residency papers to come through. If the woman leaves to go home, the man loses a governmental deposit meant to curb “green card weddings.” And if the seven years end without a spark of love, the couple may go their separate ways. It’s an avenue towards real opportunity these women wouldn’t otherwise have whether or not it’s entirely above board or ethically solid.
We receive a bit of everything as Plambech and Metz chose their subjects well insofar as supplying the myriad possible outcomes of this scenario. Kae is matched with Kjeld B. Andersen so we can catch a glimpse of their courtship with its prevalent language barrier and tentative romance. Saeng is too young (you have to be twenty-four for Sommai to legally bring you over) and thus must join her friend Lom in Pattaya. It’s a heart-breaking parallel to watch their paths diverge in such a way because one gets what the other hoped while she’s forced to do what they both strove to avoid. One earns a path to rescue her son from Thailand and give him a European education while the other must leave hers behind.
Their stories don’t end here, though. With more than half the runtime left to go, we fast-forward those seven years to see how things turned out. It’s not all good with those who were bonded the strongest having trouble and those we weren’t sure would click finding true love. We see divorce, illness, setbacks, and lottery-levels of luck. It’s wild to see how certain branches progressed and yet even success isn’t wholly perfect. Things happen that are out of our control and life takes as much as it gives without warning. And we’re dealing with more than just people here considering how different these two cultures are. Sometimes this is a chasm that can be easily bridged and other times it takes decades to discover it can’t.
I really enjoyed spending time with these characters because of that uncertainty and the second half soars as a result of its long-gestating revelations. There are real emotions on display with weighty arguments dictating their futures that the camera never interferes with enough to prevent full candor. Listen to the women talk together in Thai to verify this fact since their sexually explicit conversations are always very entertaining. They must be candid because this isn’t a one-time deal with money exchanging hands. This is permanent — or at least semi-permanent when compared to the alternative. Those ninety days afforded by a traveling visa aren’t for being shy because saying “I do” is a commitment regardless of “‘Til death do us part.” It can also be salvation.
Heartbound premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.