Film Review: BNK48: Girls Don't Cry (2018)

High school was difficult. It was a time to get noticed, when everybody else wanted to get noticed. That small window of time in your life when acne breakouts meant the end of the world, the pressure of being seen with the right group of friends during canteen breaks, seems so distant now. But in a peculiar way, BNK48 Girls Don’t Cry, a documentary about a rising Thai girl band BNK48 by Nawapol Thamrongrattanari, transported me back to that window of time. I was part of the school choir and I vividly remember griping about how a smaller elite acapella group within the choir rather unfairly cherrypicked members to be part of them. They always stole the show at the annual choir concert. Quite evidently, the chief reason for my grievance was me not being selected to be part of that group. As long as I remember, that grudge stayed with me till the day I collected my GCE ‘A’ level results. Then adult life took over and I discovered reason again. 

(Parts of the account have been exaggerated for effect). Nawapol’s Girls Don’t Cry set its narrative along these lines. In the film, I found connection with Jib (most would), a serial ‘Under’ in the girl band BNK48. Maybe this needs some education. BNK48, the Thai franchise of Japanese mega girl group AKB48, has 30 members, who under their regular pruning system for the launch of singles, are reminded that not all girls are made equal. Only about 15 to 16 girls are selected to front the single each time through a Senbatsu (election) process, and the remaining unselected have the unfortunate label of ‘Unders’. Jib (pictured below) is one such girl. Enthusiastic as she may be, she does not belong to the typical mould of the fair-skinned, ‘kawaii’ girl synonymous with East-Asian girl bands, and through the tinted (I dare say tainted) glasses of a consumerist East Asian who has a strong K/J-pop diet and a stash of BB cream, she misses the mark. 

And with this, we are thrown into the core issue of the documentary - selection. It is evident the inherent dynamics of ‘sisterhood’ and relationships within the girl band already provides a natural point of conflict in the film. Did I mention it was all sweet and dreamy at the beginning? It was, with personal audition anecdotes, and stories about how they got their foot into show business. One particular girl was coerced by a fortune teller. Camaraderie came in generous servings as the girls slipped into the groove of rehearsals. However, Senbatsu came along and disrupted their dynamics. What’s remarkable is how subtle and quick the change is, akin to milk that is just a few days past its due date, sweet at the threshold, sour in its aftertaste. As one girl summed it up well, while they were friends, they could not help but feel they were competing with each other and had to be on their toes all the time.. 

Through it all, the timeline of the girls’ relationships was established through the confessionals that form the basic blocks of the documentary. Shot in a bare room the size of a box that looked almost claustrophobic, and with lighting reminds one of prison mugshots, each girl was simply made to talk along the lines of a some basic questions. While one would expect the girls to put on some level of filter, some of the girls struck some level of honesty at certain points, which could be considered an achievement knowing how well-oiled the girl-band PR machines usually are. It doesn’t take a genius to make this documentary and in the case of director Nawapol, who gave us the trailblazing Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy., this seemed almost toothless and certainly tame. But perhaps, getting the green light to give a reality TV spin on the BNK48 story, was already a coup. Or perhaps the film is simply relevant because BNK48 is a ‘thing’ in Thailand now. 

I tried hard to find a point in Nawapol’s documentary for I was convinced milking the popularity of BNK48 could not be the raison d’etre of the film for this director knows how to raise eyebrows if he wants to. Sitting through the back to back confessionals, one might start to realise that the director was rather partial to a few characters like Jib and Pupe. Pupe was another ‘Under’ girl who was struggling hard to crack the code of Senbatsu. By the end of the film, it became hard to remember anyone else except these two (partly also because Asian girl bands are such clusters of lookalikes!). In an exclusive performance footage, Jib could be seen dancing in the wings in sync with the main featured girls, yet half the stage apart and all alone. Point made. For some, the film could even be allegorical to life and all its social pressures. Of course, if it gets too much, one could just diss this as a curious peek into the peculiar world of girl groups. For me, and all the memories of high school, I indulged myself in viewing this film as torch-holder for the, excuse the pun, underdog.

- Jeremy Sing
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