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Between Denmark and Thailand:Two Films Explore Romantic Barter

by Brittany Shoot
Denmark

For the past two years, the buzz has grown increasingly louder about emerging Danish documentary filmmaker Janus Metz. In his complementary, almost sequential films, Love on Delivery (From Thailand to Thy) and Ticket to Paradise (From Thy to Thailand), Metz and anthropological collaborator Sine Plambech adeptly examine relationships between Danish-Thai couples. Both films were shown on Danish public television with a record number of viewers and have since experienced wider distribution with screenings at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and South by Southwest.

The films revolve around matchmaker Sommai, who places a “husband wanted” ad in the local Danish paper for her niece Kae. As Kae arrives for a three-month holiday in Denmark, Love on Delivery opens with the community of Thai women rallying around her as she searches for a partner. While Kae stays with Sommai on a tourist visa, the women act fast to interview potential suitors.

Kae, whose frequent pensive facial expressions are beautiful to watch, ends up moving in with shy, awkward Kjeld, and despite the language barrier, he proposes marriage a week later. The ceremony takes place before Kae goes back to Thailand, and in the following months, both wait impatiently for her new spousal visa – complete with Kjeld’s financial guarantee to provide for her – to be approved so that she can return.

While it’s easy to view the situation as contrived, the women in the documentary – Mong, Kae, Basit, and in Ticket to Paradisee, Saeng – insist that their matriarch Sommai is an agent of change and a necessary, helpful liaison. “You help us more than anyone. You’re like a mother to us,” Mong says during the first scenes of Love on Delivery. She insists, “I thought of coming to Denmark for a long time until Aunt Sommai got me here. I was sure that my life would be so much better.”

By Mong’s standards, she was right; life in Denmark is a vast improvement over life in her Thai village or the common alternative of working in the sex trade in Pattaya. It would be easy to cast Sommai in the role of conniving madam, but despite the obvious intentions of the women, she is shown to be a thoughtful negotiator among people searching for a better life.

Janus Metz’s goal was to tell a unique story from as unbiased a viewpoint as possible, and in that, he succeeded. What could have been portrayed as a story of mail-order brides (or husbands) run amok instead exposes the fragility in which global partnerships are created and sustained. None of the couples in the film seem unhappy; on the contrary, many speak of how meeting their spouses has fundamentally improved their lives.

Metz’s compassionate, humanistic portrayal of spouses Kjeld and Frank is a pleasant surprise. Dodging rumors that these relationships are often abusive, Metz shows several examples of kind, doting husbands. Kjeld explains that he’s never been lucky in anything, and after marrying Kae, he feels that life is finally working out for him. He knows some people will judge his decision, but he tells the camera that this doesn’t bother him. Frank, a divorcee who battled depression and alcoholism until meeting Basit, wonders aloud if he’s ever known love before being with her.

Indeed, the women seem contented in their arrangements, though none seem to have particular illusions about how the situation works. On more than one occasion, Mong encourages Kae to accept Kjeld’s advances. Though it is sometimes uncomfortable to watch Kae adjusting to her new partner, Mong contrasts Kae’s experience by explaining that her husband’s proposal was “a treasure.” Soon, it is apparent that Kae and Kjeld’s affection is mutual. After Kae returns to Thailand to wait for the Danish authorities to approve their marriage and spousal visa, she and Kjeld begin each phone conversation with, “Hej skat” – “Hi baby.”

While the women work in fish factories in Denmark, they also live in a land of low plains and windmills. Thy is a region full of tiny villages scattered over the western Jutland shoreline. Focusing on the vastness of the landscape, the truly gorgeous footage helps illustrate the potential for loneliness – or, depending on how you look at it, the vastness of opportunity and possibility. The undertones of what could have been – life as an impoverished sex worker – are always present.

In Ticket to Paradise, viewers are exposed to the realities of Pattaya’s red light district. In many ways, young Saeng’s story is also Sommai’s. Sommai began as a sex worker in Pattaya where she met her Danish husband Niels. Now married 15 years, Sommai rather ominously tells Saeng that sometimes you have to work for what you want.

Denmark’s rather strict immigration laws have made it difficult in recent years to move into the country permanently. Unlike some Western countries, a Danish family visa is both expensive and a gamble. Many entry restrictions remain – ostensibly to safeguard women against trafficking but also based on Danish nationalism and to protect the social welfare state against outside abuse. While these issues are only alluded to in the films, it’s fair to say that they remain at the forefront of many real life debates about financial transactions and partnerships across borders.

Both films address the complicated themes of globalization, cross-cultural legal issues, and family. But both also end on hopeful notes: an engagement, several reunions in airport terminals, and the promise of escape from Thailand. What may not have been possible two decades ago has become a sanguine reality for people living on the edge of their own cultures. Though certainly not uncomplicated, Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise show that with patience and acceptance, a whole new cultural space becomes possible.

Brittany’s review is the first piece in a 2-part series on the films of Janus Metz.
Read her interview with the Danish filmmaker here. – Ed.



About the Author
Brittany Shoot is an American writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. A longtime member of the Feminist Review blog editorial collective, her writing has also appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Bitch, make/shift, WireTap Magazine, and Religion Dispatches.
Brittany earned concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in Women’s Studies, Communication, and Psychology, and has a Master’s degree in Visual and Media Arts. She likes to think of herself as a recovering academic but suspects that another degree in animal ethics might be in her future. A vegan and empathic animal advocate, she hopes to eventually operate her own farm sanctuary. When she isn’t taking photos with vintage film cameras and eating avocados, Brittany can be found moonlighting as a teacher, pet sitter, and farmhand. Visit her website at www.brittanyshoot.com.

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