Less a feature debut than a marked progression in a career of interdisciplinary video work, Prapat Jiwarangsan’s Ploy makes no attempts to distance itself from its creator’s tenure as an installation artist, even if it is in possession of an overarching narrative, and runs a comparatively hefty 51 minutes after a series of shorts that never surpassed 20. An impressive confluence of narrated testimony, painting, photo-roman, and patient master shots of urban and forested Singaporean landscapes, this mutable methodology is otherwise grounded by its source material, a chapter from Kon Glai Baan (Persons Far From Home) — a collection of 20 short stories written by Thai migrant workers outlining their experiences in Singapore — entitled “A sad record of a sex worker.” The story itself is the diary of Ploy (a nickname, we’re informed only a few minutes in), which is fractured across Jiwarangsan’s freeform essay film.
Ploy’s own history as a prostitute in Singapore is a harrowing one, which Jiwarangsan wisely chooses not to replicate; his approach, if occasionally muted, avoids any sort of portentous gesturing. Ploy, along with a few other Thai women, was forced into prostitution under the false pretenses of being offered work in upscale restaurants and hotels, instead held at a “jungle brothel” with nothing more than some paltry tarps and poles for shelter. Jiwarangsan seems to be particularly fascinated by the way in which such a cruel and manipulative operation can manifest within a city that has a reputation for manicured gardens and sparkling shopping centers. When matching shots of verdant forests with accounts of these sex workers’ horrifying circumstances, the effects are chilling, implicating the government as well, and their discrimintory attitudes toward women’s bodies.
Ploy casts a wide-reaching technical net, and as is to unfortunately be expected, the relationship between form and content is frustratingly obtuse at certain intervals. While working with a 1:1 ratio of spoken history and simple imagery, Jiwarangsan succeeds; when the film begins to court more metacommentative readings, it falters. Layered atop those aforementioned shots of Singaporean landscapes are scenes of a photographer in a darkroom, editing reels of film of those very same locations. If this is meant to reflect the artistic process of Jiwarangsan’s own approach, it’s an otherwise indecipherable inclusion within a well-established formula. When taken in concert with the intrusively poetic bookends, Ploy begins to feel like a product of aestheticization, saved only by its clear-eyed adapting of its source material.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.