Thoughts on ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok’ or, A Critique of the (mis)appropriation of Brecht.

This essay was written as what we call a ‘practice essay’ in Imogen’s third year at Goldsmiths. I had lectured on the films of Denis O’Rourke for nearly ten years and always asked a question something like ‘who spoke for who (or who xxxx’d who) in the Good Woman of Bangkok?’. After this effort, I had to retire the topic as there was no chance of a better one being written. Imogen I miss you. Jx


Thoughts on ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok’ or, A Critique of the (mis)appropriation of Brecht.

Imogen Bunting

‘In any case the object is to fob us off with some kind of portable anguish – that’s to say anguish that can be detached from its cause, transferred in toto and lent to some other cause. The incidents proper to the play disappear like meat in a cunningly mixed sauce with a taste of its own.’

The ‘poetics of prostitution’ and the ‘ordeal of contact’ are the two faces of O’Rourke’s project of ‘documentary fiction’. His film, The Good Woman of Bangkok (TGWOB) is, he advises about, ‘prostitution as a metaphor for both capitalism and sexual relationships,’ or at least these are the flavours of his pseudo-Brechtian sauce. The meat, of the international division of labour, the economics of global capitalism , Australia in (post) colonial Asia, misogyny, imperialism, the list could go on…are, like O’Rourke’s implicit phallus, always awkwardly elsewhere. After all, in TGWOB, like all classic pornographic films, it is the phallus, (O’Rourke) that is the real star of the show. So powerful and omniscient that he need hardly appear in the film itself.

The confession, however much of an ‘ordeal’ it may be for the artist, can never be didactic. Implicit in the notion of confession is the process of absolution and in this is the very essence of Aristotlian catharsis which Brecht’s didactic theatre fought to challenge. This is not a negation of emotional response, but it is a strategic privileging of a critical response in order to recognise the possibility of change. It is only when the actions on stage/screen are alienatory, in order to re-present us to life, that we are able to glance a critical eye over highly emotive subjects. Above all, what we must avoid, according to Brecht, is a kind of emotional orgy in which the social and political consciousness of the audience is superficially purged by the cathartic experience of the performance.

Whilst O’Rourke’s film is undoubtedly ‘unsettling’, an ‘ordeal’, even sometimes a shock, it enabled the spectator to submit to its own grotesque and augmented pathos, rather than to examine, CRITICALLY and here Brecht would clarify, ‘and with practical consequences,’ the politics of prostitution as an industry, maintained by and because of global capital economics and neo-colonial politics. Whilst O’Rourke wants the audience to feel, ‘self-recognition and embarrassment’, the very issues he raises deserve/require more than for western film consumers (converted or otherwise) to wallow in the revelation of their own prudery.

What O’Rourke fails to address is the fact that for Aoi, prostitution is anything but metaphorical. Two distinct but interconnected points must be made here. Firstly, that the idiosyncrasy of Aoi’s experiences are lost in O’Rourke’s aestheticization of her. And secondly, that prostitution is portrayed by O’Rourke as, ‘a metaphor for capitalism’ rather than as a structural politico-economic neo-colonial form of exploitation. So, from macro to micro, O’Rourke tells us nothing much more than we (who?) already know about Australian/Asian sex-tourism. The ‘meat’ of Aoi’s story and of sex tourism as a particular example (not metaphor) of global capitalism are disguised by the sauce of the film itself.

This is not didactic.

O’Rourke writes how he wanted to, ‘resist the lure of earnest statements to the converted,’. Brecht writes,’ the new alienations are only designed to free socially-conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today,’p192. There seems to be a discrepancy here. Whilst O’Rourke can be celebrated for not being moralising, prudish, dogmatic, evangelical per se, TGWOB seems at once contrived and titillating. It was grotesque and it was uncomfortable, and perhaps so it should be, but not merely in order that the filmmaker can become a martyr to his own cause. The emotions evoked by the socio-political issues of the film and their portrayal must be pushed through their own limit. As Spivak describes the subaltern studies collective trying to create a space of possibility from the impossibility of the subaltern voice. So, we might envisage a film about Thai prostitution which doesn’t make the audience feel before they think.

‘I am willing to talk, but you should not have doubts about my words. There is the image of the woman and there is her reality. Sometimes the two do not go well together!’ (a ‘character’ in Trinh T Minh Ha’s Surname Viet, Given name Nam)
The image of the woman (Aoi) and her words seemed to go very well together, as O’Rourke’s final edit showed a narrative of Aoi’s relationship with the camera changing through the course of the film. There seems to be a difference between the first time Aoi asked O’Rourke to stop filming, ‘I am eating. This has nothing to do with your film,’ and the second, when the camera really does stop (or at least that is what happens after the edit). Aoi’s confidence has grown, she is embellishing the power she sees she has over the outcome of O’Rourke’s work, and the audience begins to question the degrees of dramatisation, the ficitiousness, the staging, the manipulation. We are betrayed when we discover that the shots of Aoi on the bed which we see are the fifth take.

‘The difference between so-called documentary and fiction in their depiction of reality is the question of degrees of fictitiousness,’(Trinh T Minh Ha). The ‘staging’ of the ‘real’, challenges our boundaries of both. The fetish of authenticity is shaken by O’Rourke’s work in so much as the montage of interviews differ significantly from softly lit mirrored bathroom ‘soliliqueys’, to ‘casual’ and incredibly clipped dialogues. However, unlike the work of Trinh T Minh Ha in Surname Viet, Given name Nam, in which the close up shots and overlays of subtitles force the viewer to question both the objectifying lens and the overcoding of the interview, O’Rourke’s film seems to linger in the discomfort of confession, before, (and this is the critical point) the absolution.

The very visceral ontology of Aoi’s life is constantly subsumed by O’Rourke’s own, now fetishised, ‘ordeal’ of the filmic process. In the words of Spivak, ‘the other has been appropriated by assimilation’. O’Rourke aligns himself with Aoi, as he describes them as, ‘united in their shared experiences of helpless victimisation,’.
O’Rourke cites Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan as his inspiration, ‘an ironic parable about the impossibility of living a good life in an imperfect world,’.
Interestingly enough however, there are significant differences between Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok. Whilst O’Rourke concludes his film with his own narration of Aoi’s statement, ‘it is my fate’, Brecht’s play concludes with the main character, Shen Te saying, ‘help’. This signifies a much wider separation in both (ideology?) and intent.

Whilst O’Rourke’s film is an ‘uncomfortable metaphor for the collective identity of the (post)-colonial Australian’ (Berry) precisely because the world is very much ‘imperfect’. Brecht’s play, as a manifestation of his experiments with didactic theatre (lehrstucke) is exactly about challenging the imperfection of the world. This is not idealistic so much as politically imperative. Brecht’s portrait of Shen Te is historically and poltically contextualised in order that the particular relations of power be made visible to the audience. From which point, more general critiques can be extrapolated and understood.

Whilst O’Rourke’s film is undoubtedly ‘unsettling’, an ‘ordeal’, even sometimes a shock, it enabled the spectator to submit to its own grotesque and augmented pathos, rather than to examine, CRITICALLY and here Brecht would clarify, ‘and with practical consequences,’ the politics of prostitution as an industry, maintained by and because of global capital economics and neo-colonial politics. Whilst O’Rourke wants the audience to feel, ‘self-recognition and embarrassment’, the very issues he raises deserve/require more than for western film consumers (converted or otherwise) to wallow in the revelation of their own prudery.

O’Rourke is right, we are all implicated in some way, and that is precisely why an analysis of the structures of this sort of exploitation that can be extrapolated from the ethnographic account are what is called for…

It would have been poetic perhaps to conclude this with some choice words of Aoi, extrapolated from O’Rourke’s text. However, this would be somewhat tokenist if not to say besides the point. The good guy’s don’t always get the last word, the meek shall not inherit the earth, and it is not their ‘fate’ so much as it is the workings of an exploitative global economy and imperialist politics. The subaltern here was certainly unable to speak, but perhaps creating that impossible space was never the point. If however, O’Rourke’s point was to challenge the preconceptions and petit-bourgeois moralising smugness of western documentary viewers, the method might more creatively and usefully been a more didactic, yes, Brechtian film, rather than the shock tactics of the theatre of O’Rourke’s confession.

It is tempting then, to end with Spivak, ‘The subaltern cannot speak. Representation has not withered away,’ but perhaps that sounds too fateful, too impossible.
Instead we return to the texts of the literary misappropriated, Brecht himself. Whilst Chris Berry suggests that we should, ‘rekindle the discomfort’, of the film in order to create something in the spaces it opens up, I prefer to call on Brecht who recognises the imperative of forging a narrative which is both ‘disconcerting but fruitful’, this is not the confessions of a white, middle class, male film maker and his ‘emotional imbroglio’. But it is the beginning of an experimentation with the possibility that, ‘there is such a thing as pleasurable learning, cheerful and militant learning,’ p73.

…and of course all of this is cheerfully inconclusive…

Imogen Bunting – for Anthropology, Representation and Contemporary Media. lect. J.Hutnyk, Dept Anthro, Goldsmiths 2001

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  • christine herbert  On 07/08/2011 at 22:45

    A good women is virtuous, trustworthy God fearing Industriuious Feeds her family at night and buy & sells clothes own a farm/ allotment. & looks after her family Prov 31 Vs 1-10

    Christine Herbert-mosavie
    A Good Godly Women

    Like

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