Film Review: Ploy (2020)

This iteration of SGIFF witnesses the world premiere of one of its inaugural Film Fund recipients—Ploy by Thai visual artist and film director Prapat Jiwarangsan. The documentary is both an experimental narration of migrant workers’ lived experience in Singapore and the artist's interrogation of how these marginalised voices can be represented.

The film features the story of Ploy, a Thai woman who leaves Buriram Province in search of a life beyond her hometown and winds up in Singapore as an illegal sex worker at a makeshift “jungle brothel” situated in a secluded forested area. The story originates from Koi Glai Baan (Persons Far From Home), a collection of migrant workers’ short biographies that the director had chanced upon and was inspired by. He in turn employs a plethora of filmic devices to give shape to the stories: footage of the Thai province, of the journey to Singapore through Malaysia, first-person perspective voiceovers of the subjective recount of the garden-city.

As a visual artist, Prapat Jiwarangsan does not hesitate to augment and interject the documentary with incisive expressions made in the language of photography and installation art. A slideshow of film negatives capturing congregations of migrant workers in public spaces of the urban city casts them in the light of otherness, of being the diametrical opposite of the citizen. In another sequence, a series of photo slides of sex workers are sequentially projected onto the interior of a bedroom, bodies transfigured when the light hits off uneven surfaces. The act of abstracting away recognisable forms of the human figures can be read as a means to anonymising these subjects, and at the same time an allusion to the violence inscribed upon their bodies, brutal enough to cause such transmutations.

Indeed, structural violence and injustice are the main targets of the documentary. Ploy was raped by a police officer, but the juridical system failed to bring justice to her case. Viewers never see the actual proceedings nor direct interviews with anyone remotely related to the event, only a voice recounting the story against a forested backdrop. That the narrative is only accessible through acting and reconstructed imageries suffices to illustrate the silencing and repressive effect of the state apparatus on marginalised voices.

Extended long shots of natural landscapes come in profusion. They were and continue to be witnesses to activities that lie outside the purview of the public eye, but not necessarily of the government. Signages and locked gates forbidding entry to particular parts of Singapore’s natural environment are among the elements made prominent in the documentary, symptomatic of the state’s pervasive discipline mechanisms. More than that, they pointedly allude to a contradiction, or duplicity, in Singapore’s relation with nature: what is prima facie considered a desirable, lively element of a city-garden suddenly takes on a sense of obscurity, prohibition, and hostility. The status quo is therefore elaborately exposed and problematised.

We see on screen the filmmaker painstakingly making several marker strokes on the film negatives, which turn into ghostly white marks after development. It is an act of cognition, and an inescapably violent one.

Written by Dan Tran
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