Brit helmer Thomas Clay's sophomore feature, "Soi Cowboy," demonstrates a growing maturity.

Brit helmer Thomas Clay’s sophomore feature, “Soi Cowboy,” demonstrates a growing maturity. This slowburning, enigmatic drama, mostly about a Danish man and a Thai woman awkwardly living together in Bangkok, is deeper and more likeable than Clay’s controversial debut, “The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael.” Gone are the latter film’s shock tactics, allowing Clay’s cinematic sophistication to sparkle all the better. Consequently, a certain highbrow contingent will eagerly pony up for “Cowboy,” but others may see little more here than a preening bricolage of allusions, richer in style than substance. B.O. prospects are strictly niche.

Corpulent Tobias Christensen (Danish character actor Nicolas Bro), a filmmaker whose career seems roughly in the same place as Thomas Clay’s, and his unnamed, pregnant g.f. (newcomer Pimwalee Thampanyasan) are first met during a typical morning in their small, one-bedroom apartment. Not a word is spoken between them for at least 15 minutes of real time as each breakfasts on toast and fish, respectively.

Tobias then sets off to do some shopping, purchasing DVDs from a black-market stall (he requests, without success, a copy of “The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael”), a couple of Viagra tablets at a pharmacy and a gold bracelet for his lady. In a later comic, but quietly revealing, scene that underscores the barely concealed economic underpinnings of their relationship, she expresses pleasure with her gift, but seems more interested in its resale value, “in case of trouble,” than its sentimental significance.

Dialogue and later events imply that Tobias and the Thai woman met at a bar or brothel in Bangkok’s seedy Soi Cowboy red-light district, and having fallen for her, offered to support her and take her away from it all, even though she avoids having sex with him these days. However, she still stays in touch with her friends from Soi Cowboy, including Cha , a gofer for a nightclub gangster. In pic’s later half Cha travels to his rural hometown to track down his older brother, also an employee of the gangster, who’s gone missing.

For roughly 90 minutes, pic chugs along, loping beside Toby and his g.f. as they putter around the house, and eventually decide to take a trip to Ayutthaya to stay at a hotel and see its legendary temples. A jaunt around one ruin pays particular homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” as the couple is lost from view amid slow tracking shots of near-empty spaces and grumbling soundtrack noise.

Pic then shifts into lurid color and genre territory, as action now follows Cha on his trip to find his brother, ending with an eerie scene in a Soi Cowboy nightclub that tips its hat — and probably a scarf and few pairs of gloves — to David Lynch.

As it happens, “Cowboy” is chock-full of allusions to Clay’s pantheon of auteur heroes, including not just Antonioni and Lynch and many other Europeans, but also notable and newer Asian helmers like Hou Hsiao-hsien (the pacing, the languid atmosphere) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the bipartite structure, the Thai setting itself).

Although Clay manages, just about, to keep these references in service of his story, it not yet clear what his own directorial voice looks like, or what exactly it is he wants to say. Sneaking suspicion remains that the meat of movie is the relatively simple story of Tobias and his woman, and the gangster stuff is just tacked on to add exotic spice.

Although made on a much smaller budget, per press notes, than “The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael,” pic looks technically pro, though lensing by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is a little murky at times in the monochrome section, perhaps deliberately.

Soi Cowboy

U.K.-Thailand

Production

A Pull Back Camera, De Warrenne Pictures Co. Production. (International sales: The Coproduction Office, Paris.) Produced by Joseph Lang, Tom Waller. Executive producer, Thomas Clay. Directed, written, edited by Thomas Clay.

Crew

Camera (color, B&W, 16-to-35mm), Sayombhu Mukdeeprom; production designer, Nick Kemp; sound (Dolby Digital), Thomas Clay. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 2008. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Nicolas Bro, Pimwalee Thampanyasan, Petch Mekoh, Natee Srimanta, Somluk Kuamsing, Art Supawatt, Pornthip Papanai, Amporn Parnkratoke, Aritkarn Malaichu. (English, Thai, Danish dialogue)

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