On the surface, the Danish documentary “Heartbound” sounds like something of a lark: There are 926 Thai women who live in the small Danish fishing community of Thy. Twenty-five years ago, there were no Thai women, except for Sommai, a former sex worker from the Thai resort city of Pattaya.
As it turns out, Sommai, who has developed a loving relationship with husband Niels, has been helping lonely Danish men find companions in Thailand, and she has become like a mother to many of the villagers.
“Heartbound” follows the ins and outs of several of these couples over 10 years – a substantial commitment of time for the subjects as well as for the filmmakers, Janus Metz and his anthropologist wife, Sine Plambech. And “Heartbound” is far from being a lark. There’s companionship, but there’s also plenty of heartbreak.
The film begins with the journey of Kae, Sommai’s niece, who is coming to Denmark to see whether a suitor named Kjeld will be a good companion. She needs to support a son back home. And she is expected to move into Kjeld’s house, after only a peremptory meeting, and she’s expected to have sex with him if she wants a proposal of marriage. That’s just the way it is. But many of these Thai women are coming from impoverished circumstances, broken marriages, with children to support and the prospect of having nowhere else to turn, unless they opt to become one of many prostitutes in Pattaya.
So the anthropological and societal questions are serious, as is the possibility of exploitation.
One of the women from Sommai’s village, in fact, turns out to be too young to qualify for residency in Denmark through marriage, so she accompanies her friend Lom to Pattaya to work in the sex bars in an attempt to support her child. (Thai fathers rarely enter into this picture.)
Another couple, John and Mong, seem to be thriving in Denmark, and they have a garden full of angels and Buddha statues. Another couple, Frank and Basit, are getting a divorce. And as the film spans the years, Sommai begins to feel homesick for Thailand.
Despite stories of success, “Heartbound” is heartbreaking in many ways. Relatives die. Family ties are irrevocably broken. Young women end up selling themselves. And those who enter loving relationships with men in Denmark still long for those they left behind.
The directors say that they believe their film is “about longing and survival – physically and spiritually.” But it’s also clear that these Thai women have sacrificed much of their lives in the hopes that they might save the future for their children.
The big trouble comes when the women realize they have succeeded — that they’ve managed to raise their children and educate them and prepare them for a productive life. Then what? Stay in an arranged marriage? Stay in Denmark? For some, the answer is yes. For others, the answer is a big fat no.
“Heartbound” premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s an acquisition title, which is festival lingo for: It’s looking for a distributor.