Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, 2018. 1h 30min
In the beginning of the 90s, a Thai woman named Sommai married a Danish man and moved to the rural area of northern Denmark where he was living. At that time she was the only Thai woman there. But over the course of twenty-five years, not only did she make a life there, but she also became known as a sort of matchmaker, helping hundreds of other Thai women find Danish partners. Metz and Plambech’s long-term project is an in-depth look into the stories of these women and their partners, understanding who they are and where they come from, their reasons to get married, their relationships and how their lives changed over the years.
A long-term project on marriage-migration
Plambech, an anthropologist, started studying Thai women in the Isaan region 15 years before. These women encouraged her to talk to Sommai and the two hit it off. Eventually Plambech joined up with filmmaker Metz whom she also married. They released the films Love on Delivery in 2007 and Ticket to Paradise in 2008, which centred on the same characters and stories as Heartbound: A Different Kind of Love Story, the crowning feature film of their project. The film ties together the threads of the stories uncovered in the first films, spanning a decade long period.
Theirs is not the fairytale love the Western world idealises.
Nowadays, the Western ideal of marriage is a mix of romance, compatibility on many levels and equality between partners. Even though these criteria are relatively new – marriage used to be a pragmatic economic arrangement in the Western world too – we believe our current understanding of marriage to be the only definition of real love. The union between a Thai woman and a Western man that doesn’t look anything like Prince Charming is often judged, and most outsiders can hardly see it as a dream. For Sommai and all the other women in the film, financial stability and marriage go together, and are a condition of a happy life. Theirs is not the fairytale love the Western world idealises. They all come from the Isaan region, one of the most impoverished parts of Thailand. Some of them already had partners and children, partners that were not reliable or kind and children they ended up not being able to feed.
Poverty is so pervasive in that region that many women end up working in the sex industry in the big cities of Thailand. Raised and educated to put family above everything else, they use their only assets – their beauty and their youth – in the name of love for their dear ones, who in return never really ask where the money comes from. Having to choose between poverty and selling sex, how could a man that is able to provide and rescue them from their situation not be some sort of prince in a Cinderella story?
What makes a real Prince Charming?
Sommai met her husband while working in Pattaya, one of Thailand’s prostitution hubs. She is not ashamed of her past, and it is with the strength of a woman that knows exactly how such a choice feels that she encourages Saeng, a young mother of one, who, in between attempts to find a Western husband, ends up working in a sex bar. Saeng’s enthusiasm at finding out how easy money can be made from selling sex – money that is not a great amount but that sounds like one for someone who has nothing – is heartbreaking and an insight into how little money she has ever had.
In Denmark, the women learn the language and take on simple but decently paying jobs. Living in a rural community in northern Denmark is far from Heaven, but it is a safe and dignified life. Not having found these husbands would have been a sentence to poverty and stagnation. Theirs is not the fairytale love the Western world idealises. The film gives an empathetic glimpse into the complicated web of reasons and choices in their lives, and let’s them be the heroes of their stories instead of victims of their circumstances.
Marriage does not fix everything
And it becomes very clear that finding a Western husband is not the cure to all pains. Living abroad means living in between worlds and that is something Heartbound captures very well. These women live on the thin line between what isn’t and what is, and «what isn’t» is a life close to family and friends, some of them having left even children behind.
Poverty is so pervasive in that region that many women end up working in the sex industry in the big cities of Thailand.
Yet in their family and friends’ eyes, they are successful. Sommai’s story is, for everyone, the ultimate story of success. She was the first to move to Denmark, and, as she is getting old, she dreams of going back to Thailand, hardly a choice for a Danish husband who has never lived there and is himself getting old. The realisation that life passes, that people might or might not be there on your return and that you have lived most of your lives apart is actually the toughest truth these women face. It is the big price they all pay, the price that upsets the balance between what is gained and what is lost with the life choices they made.