Karaoke, the socially acceptable way in which to degrade yourself publicly, has much more complex meanings in Visra Vichit Vadakan’s debut feature, Sao karaoke. Set in Bangkok, Visra follows Sa Sittijun, a real-life escort (karaoke girl) working to support her family. Blending fiction and documentary, the film is structured around Sa’s return home to her poor village, while intercut with lyrical—at times all too predictable—interludes of her struggling romantic life.
As a project documenting women’s work, the film is impossible to not sympathize with. The main financial provider for her family, Sa lies and says she works in a factory, thus able to return home as a prodigal daughter, celebrated by her extended family. To Visra’s credit, the film never delves into misery porn or feels exploitative; the most graphic on screen sex is a cartoonish wooden sculpture, made in Sa’s home village for a parade, of a man penetrating a woman on all fours. Rather than beating a sense of despair into the audience, Visra captures Sa’s melancholic interiority, as well as her moments of happiness.
While the mix of fiction and documentary is meant to create a more nuanced portrait than that of the typical human-interest story, the structure of the film rapidly falls apart in the final chapter. Leaning too heavily on melodrama, despite a strong performance from Sa, because of this Sao karaoke undermines its boldest move: enacting Sa’s fantasy of being a pop singer. Asked what she would like to do, over a black screen Sa replies: “You mean if I dreamed?” Immediately cutting to a fictional lavish production in which Sa is the star, the moment both acknowledges Visra’s own position of power within the filming dynamic (she creates the story), but also feels like a genuine moment of play between Sa and the director. It is Sa’s true karaoke moment. A powerful point on which to end, much of this is lost in the decision to include further snippets from Sa’s village with voiceover and footage of her laughing on train, most likely engaging with Visra behind the camera. Gentle and kind, yes, but the force of this dream sequence, and its larger suggestive power regarding cinema, is sadly diluted.