(The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6-16 in, you guessed it, Toronto, Canada. Hammer to Nail has boots on the ground in the form of lead critic Chris Reed and Matt Delman. They’re excited to bring you some amazing reviews so stay tuned!)
Filmed over 10 years, the new documentary Heartbound: A Different Kind of Love Story – from Danish filmmakers Janus Metz (Borg vs McEnroe) and Sine Plambech (Trafficking) – is a remarkable chronicle of a kind of migration not usually given a positive spin, much less a cinematic spotlight: that of mail-order marriage. As we learn through the opening title cards, there were no Thai women in Denmark’s northern Thy district 25 years ago, yet now there are over 900. How this came about is from the efforts of the exceptionally motivated Sommai, who met her Danish husband-to-be, Niels, when he was on a single-man’s tour of Pattaya, Thailand’s “sex capital.” Despite the transactional nature of their initial introduction, they fell in love, married, and have been together ever since. All the while, Sommai has worked hard to rescue other impoverished Thai women from a life of desperation and prostitution by finding them Danish husbands of their own. And so, Thy became home to many Thai.
If the subject matter sounds potentially sordid and distasteful, keep in mind the lack of options facing the women of small Thai villages. Farming is hard work, and as Metz and Plambech demonstrate, not very remunerative. One unlucky soul, once a star in Pattaya, now labors on farmland with minimal help from her father while she cares for two children and a sick mother. It’s not hard to see how a life of paid sex might compare favorably to this, and a life abroad, with a foreign husband, might seem heavenly. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they avoid judgment of brides and grooms as they explore the narrow choices that push women like Sommai – and those who follow – to leave for Denmark.
And what about the men? Who enters into such arrangements, on the Danish side? They’re likewise a fascinating bunch, though the directors give us much more backstory of the women. Some have been married before; others are unable to talk to women at all. None appear abusive; some are quite loving. There is one couple, in particular – Mong and John – that actually enjoy seem to very much enjoy each other, as happy as any couple could hope to be (at least as far as we can tell). They run the full gamut, then, hardly different from unions not brought together in this way. The women all work regular jobs, contributing to the communities in which they live, bringing their children from previous marriages with them and creating new ones with their new men. It’s not all easy – and some marriages end in divorce – but it’s a life worth living.
We return time and again to Thailand, where Sommai never ceases to recruit more women to come abroad. She’s like an international madam, in a way, though her incentives are spiritual, rather than mercenary (though her Danish bank account allows her to build a fancy house in her hometown), always with the hope to save younger versions of herself from the same path she initially took (i.e., skipping Pattaya). Indeed, this is a profoundly humanist film, devoid of false morality, and gloriously open-hearted, as its title suggests, allowing room for a multiplicity of complex reactions to the situation at hand. And yet the truth is simple: where there’s a will, there’s a way, however unconventional. Profound in its documentation of these humble, indomitable survivors, Heartbound is a work of great insight, and a very engaging movie.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)