One baffling segment in BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry sees the Thai version of Japanese girl group AKB48’s “Koisuru Fortune Cookie” — one of the most popular J-pop singles released this decade — being regarded as a potential flop by some members of BNK48, the Thai branch of Japan’s theater-idol franchise. The cluelessness of everyone involved at this specific moment speaks to just how little this film is really interested in being a piece of promotional material for AKB. Director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit invests little time in explaining the circumstances of this pop phenomenon and instead focuses fully on the individual members of BNK48 — specifically on their intense emotional experiences, as they learn what it means to be a full-time idol. The overall lack of context here also makes parts of Girls Don’t Cry feel very hermetic: for one, it’s hard to gauge BNK48’s exact level of popularity in Thailand when the film never accounts for any other Thai idol groups, nor for that matter does it explore much of the country’s pop-music industry in general. Thamrongrattanarit refrains from this conversation, never offering any clear perspective, and instead presents a platform for the women of BNK48 to define what it means to be an idol, on their own terms.
Generally [the idols] remain shockingly stoic, accepting the vicious, in-group competition as an inevitability. Girls Don’t Cry mirrors this matter-of-fact approach, observing the idols’ pain and pressure without any sensationalization, and without turning this film into an explicitly cautionary tale.
Girls Don’t Cry is not a work of journalistic investigation on the nature of pop idol culture, and Thamrongrattanarit never frames BNK48 as somehow representative of idol groups in general. The film is chiefly about inter-group drama, and remains tethered to its specific social reality, and particularly to the process of senbatsu — a voting system pioneered by AKB48 that lets fans decide which members will be involved in the recording of the group’s next single. Obviously, this leads to the development of a hierarchy: the girls begin to obsessively monitor outside perception of themselves and lament comparisons with other, more successful members. It could be said that it’s the perpetuation of this process itself that represents the women’s transformation into idols. They certainly shed some tears over the stress of their stardom, but generally they remain shockingly stoic, accepting the vicious, in-group competition as an inevitability. Girls Don’t Cry mirrors this matter-of-fact approach, observing the idols’ pain and pressure without any sensationalization, and without turning this film into an explicitly cautionary tale. Even successes here feel rather muted, and it’s this that reflects the nature of idol culture: there’s only so much time and emotion that an idol devotes to celebrating their successes before competition, the race for the top spot, starts up once again.
You can currently stream Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry on Netflix.