Male objectification hasn’t played that much of a role in the history of cinema. I mean, compared to the fairer sex, we haven’t seen many films where the physical appeal of a man has been put at the forefront and used as a storytelling tool. Netflix’s latest Thai drama, titled Doi Boy, does exactly that. Directed by Nontawat Numbenchapol, Doi Boy chronicles the journey of this young ethnic Shan man, named Sorn, in a world of sex, lies, scheming, and tenderness. In the neon-drenched city of Chiang Mai, Sorn struggles to make ends meet. He is an undocumented refugee from the land of Myanmar, so it is not possible for him to get a proper job in Thailand. As a result, he ends up turning himself into a Doi Boy, which basically means a male prostitute. The work keeps Sorn afloat, and he discovers a sense of belonging. A romantic relationship with Bee adds value to his life.
The narrative takes flight when Ji, a Thai police officer and one of Sorn’s clients, comes up with a proposal to Sorn, in exchange for which he gets registered as a Thai citizen. As you would expect, Sorn is in no position to reject the offer. That’s how a series of events began, which would set the course of the lives of all three men of Doi Boy—Sorn, Ji, and human rights activist Wuth. The mission is to apprehend Wuth, for which Ji needs Sorn’s help to lure the man. Ji also happens to have killed Bhum, who was a human rights activist as well. Interestingly, Bhum had also been in a relationship with Wuth.
The story is undeniably fascinating, and the movie makes sure that all three main characters are properly fleshed out. Ji, despite being a man of the law, is having his own inner conflict about going after Wuth. He has no other choice but to be a “yes man” to the higher authorities, who are doing barbaric things to the Shan refugees and making them disappear. Sorn (whose actual name is Wan, by the way) is in a place that is even worse. He has to do the job because there is no other way for him to get documented, and without that, a stable, fulfilling life is never guaranteed. There is an obvious romantic angle between Ji and Sorn, even though both men have female romantic partners. The emotional connection makes both Ji and Sorn’s jobs harder. Sorn getting drawn to Wuth is only natural, as Wuth is the one who is actually fighting for a better tomorrow. More importantly, Wuth is the representative of all the Shan refugees, and his aim is to hold the Thai government accountable for making the refugees disappear. It is also personal for him, as Bhum, the love of his life, lost his life while fighting for the same cause.
A little knowledge about Shan people, which I had beforehand, might come in handy for you if you’re planning to watch Doi Boy. These are the biggest minority in Myanmar, and they are involved in a civil war that spans many decades. As happens with every war, the Shan people in Myanmar suffer and struggle and always try to find their way out by looking for a better life, primarily in other parts of Southeast Asia. Doi Boy is helmed by Numbenchapol, who is already a big name when it comes to documentary filmmaking. Given that both of his acclaimed documentaries, Boundary and By the River, both released in 2013, dealt with politically controversial issues like a boundary dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and water contamination harming a village, it was evident that he would choose a subject as gritty as the struggle of Shan refugees for his feature debut. And when you see the film, you see the effort in it. Numbenchapol makes sure it’s well-researched and everything gets properly depicted. He is aided by the stunning camera work of Rimvydas Leipus as well as the acting performances of the three leads. Awat Ratanpintha, who is quite a big name in the Thai film industry, carries Doi Boy as Sorn with a nuanced, sensitive performance. Arak Amornsupasiri as Ji and Bhumibhat Thavornsiri as Wuth are as good as Ratanpintha. Panisara Rikulsurakan also impresses as Bee.
I have made it a point to talk about all the good things regarding Doi Boy before going into the only criticism I have for Numbenchapol’s film. Sadly, it happens to be a severe one. Doi Boy inarguably tells a very relevant, tragic story of the modern world. It is informative, handsomely directed, and well-acted. But it does fall short in the screenplay and editing departments. While you feel for Sorn, Wuth, and even Ji, it gets hard to keep yourself invested in their plight as the film often becomes uninteresting, or, I dare say, boring. There is a worn-out debate regarding the criticism of films that either deliver good messages or shed light on socially relevant issues. As much as we encourage that, our job doesn’t allow us to dissect them only because their intentions are good. To make a good film, a relevant issue or an important lesson is never enough. What’s essentially needed is to get the basics right, and that’s where Doi Boy falters. Numbenchapol is a fantastic documentary filmmaker, but documentary and feature are two very different genres, and the transition is often difficult. Doi Boy suffers from the hangover of documentary filmmaking in Numbenchapol, which is rather unfortunate. While the story is extremely cinematic, the film somewhat lacks punch. It is particularly disheartening because you can see the effort the cast and crew have put into it.
In conclusion, I would say Doi Boy is a very important film that I definitely didn’t regret watching, but I wasn’t particularly satisfied either. However, props to Netflix for bringing out content like this for a wider audience.