Review: Friends With Benefits, Without Benefits (2018) @ Thai Short Film & Video Festival

Despite rising conversations about consent culture and sexual harassment in the West, Thailand’s mainstream media has been largely nascent towards such topics. Due to a myriad of interlocking reasons both cultural and institutional, this subject is one that has been only slowly filtering into public discourse recently. Thus, Sorayos Prapapan’s film, Friends With Benefits, Without Benefits, pleasantly surprised me by providing a glimpse of how potent the cinematic discourse surrounding Thailand’s own MeToo moment can be, and their rising consciousness on this difficult topic.

Prapapan’s short film has been screened at both local and international film festivals. It was showcased at the 2019 Thai Short Film and Video Festival as part of the Astro A-List programme, and also featured at the 72nd Locarno International Film Festival in the same year.

The plot is fairly straightforward: a budding filmmaker seeks help from a friend to help act and model for his film proposal in order to get funding. The friend is dressed head-to-toe in a cat mascot costume, playing the role of a cat that has lost her way in a concrete jungle. The two then catch up on their separate lives in a restaurant setting, before digressing to talk about the nature of sexual harassment in contemporary times. It is revealed that the filmmaker protagonist himself admits that he had harassed a girl in the past, but details are left ambiguous. At the film’s climax (which is also its ending), the filmmaker harasses his friend by attempting to force a kiss onto her before leaving. The actress flees in a cab, feeling disappointed with him.

The film had a delightful composition, complete with quality acting, well-paced acts, and succinct, yet effective dialogue. The film had its own distinctive elements which stood out as well, such as the tinge of surrealistic elements in the budding filmmaker's proposed story, which juxtaposed the realist backdrop of the actual film and the very real issue of sexual harassment at hand. Moreover, the enigmatic nature behind the film-making protagonist's past continually beckons to the viewer, with viewers left pondering on the mysterious incident of sexual harassment that he himself admitted to committing.

I particularly appreciated the meta-cinema moment that occurs midway into the film. While dining, the actress asks the protagonist to “stop acting like [he] is from a Hong Sang-soo film”, to which he responds that when he finishes this line the camera will zoom in. As if upon instruction, the camera zooms in to a medium close-up shot of the actress. This self-reflexive, tongue-in-cheek moment reminds viewers of their own role as mere spectators, imposing their watchful gaze upon the screens as the scenes unfold. The fact that the film is about a budding filmmaker, along with references to other Asian filmmakers and the film’s own meta-cinema moment, all seem to enhance the film’s degree of verisimilitude rather than diminish it.

Most importantly, I noticed that if the viewer is not attentive, they would miss out the subtle nuances that characterise and progressively build towards the third act, whereby the transgressive act by the protagonist is committed. The gravity of the situation is only felt if you notice these subtleties, which for the inattentive or unsuspecting viewer may be lost on preliminary viewing. Throughout the film, we receive little nods that affirm the morally ambiguous nature of the film-making protagonist. The way he acts around his friend and the type of replies he provides all seem to construct a sense of general uneasiness and creepiness within this character. Most blatantly at the beginning, he takes an unsolicited photograph of his friend as she talks on the phone to her boyfriend.

At one point, the actress asks why she was picked for this role since her face would not even be visible in the photographs. The filmmaker protagonist says it is because her (acting via) body language is good. This seemingly “artistic” reply (as the actress remarks) takes a chilling turn once we understand what happens later on between the two.

This brings us to the didactic element of the film. What began as a hopeful pre-production process for a film switches into a friendship turned sour by betrayal and sexual harassment. This traces the film’s larger point, which is to ponder on how easy it is to transgress the boundaries of friendship and trust; that sexual harassment can occur even between friends. It is the latter point that I think Prapapan hits the nail with, as we see for ourselves how easily one’s trust can be broken in such a case. The deep-seated and emotionally-damaging implications of sexual harassment is encapsulated in one line by the actress friend: “Whatever you have done, you scared that girl and she can’t erase it”.

Friends With Benefits, Without Benefits deals with a very serious topic in a style that is both realistic and engaging. Overall, the film features good storytelling alongside Prapapan's blending of humor with deep-seated political commentaries. Prapapan also manages to successfully illustrate one of the lesser-explored dimensions in the lived realities of sexual harassment: when it occurs among friends. The film can thus be seen as a watershed moment for Thailand’s own MeToo moment in cinema, serving as entry into a difficult, yet necessary subject that Thai mainstream media and entertainment needs to explore.

Reviewed by Bryson Ng
Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form