There is a small fishing community in Denmark with an increasing Thai population. But it’s almost entirely Thai women who are migrating to the northern district of Thy. Sommai was the first, arriving in Denmark 25 years ago to marry a man she’d met while working as a prostitute in Pattaya (the “sex capital of the world,” as labeled by European tabloids). Since then, Sommai has become a sort of matchmaker for other transplanted Thai women and local Danish men. Today, there are close to a thousand of these married couples in Thy.
Heartbound: A Different Kind of Love Story follows the stories of Sommai and more than a handful of other characters among those hundreds. The new feature is actually a follow-up to a pair of medium-length documentaries made a decade ago by Janus Metz (Armadillo) and anthropologist Sine Plambech that were then very popular on Danish television — 2007’s From Thailand to Thy (aka Love on Delivery) and 2008’s From thy to Thailand (aka Ticket to Paradise). The first half of Heartbound is a repurposing of material seen in those earlier films, while the second half revisits all the characters seven years later, somewhat akin to Michael Apted‘s Up series but more thematically focused.
The earlier material remains the more gripping, as it introduces (or reintroduces) the intertwining narratives that compelled viewers 10 years ago. Sommai would be a fascinating subject alone, alongside husband Niels, but Metz and Plambech also follow Sommai’s niece Kae as she arrives in Denmark to find a husband and Saeng, a young woman from Sommai’s village in Thailand who also wants to migrate to Thy but is not of legal age to do so. Instead, like so many other girls in the region, she heads to Pattaya to sell herself and possibly permanently snag a Westerner that way.
Heartbound, like the other two films, tracks additional couples in Thy — Mong, who is Kae’s older sister, and John; Basit and Frank, — but the main events of the new documentary’s first half entail the dual diverging stories of what happens to Kae and Saeng. Kae is paired up, through a classified ad that markets her as basically a mail order bride. She moves in with Kjeld before the two can even properly communicate because Danish men need to be with the foreign women before they will decide to marry them. And Kae is allowed the freedom to choose whether to agree, too, though it’s in her best interest to do so.
Both Kae and Saeng are single mothers in need of better lives and financial support. Most of the Thai women who migrate to Denmark are escaping poverty as well as the reputation and reality of Thai men as financially inadequate and physically abusive. Basit’s backstory offers a heartbreaking reference for what many women experience in Thailand in violent first marriages and why they need to send money home to families left behind, including their own children. In a way, moving to Thy for a marriage of convenience seems rather comparable to moving to Pattaya for sex work, with Sommai a madam for longterm transactions.
That first half of the story remains a compelling look at the complexity of what Sommai has been doing — one could argue she’s a step away from a human trafficker, yet everything is on the up and up as far as the women having agency and some say in the matter of their future. Even if Kae’s obvious expression of nervousness and maybe even reluctance shows through in her distraction upon her first meeting with Kjeld and also many months later on their wedding day. She says that after enough time, you just fall in love… right? If either husband or wife wants to call it quits before a certain time, she’ll be forced to go back to Thailand, maybe in shame like the sex worker who returns from Pattaya husbandless. Luckily, men like Kjeld are so lonely and seem desperate for easy companionship and domestic help.
Fast forward seven years and the updates on these characters are probably not what you expect, whether you met them a decade ago in the earlier films or in Heartbound for the first time. No spoilers, but there are a surprising divorce and another couple experiencing a rough patch because the woman realizes she doesn’t want to live away from Thailand forever, and her husband doesn’t want to leave his homeland either. Kae’s son from her previous marriage, seen at age 11 in the earlier footage, is now a more prominent character, representing how the kids of this marriage migration are affected. He’s now 18 and apparently still has trouble fitting in.
This second half of the film isn’t exactly just an update on some documentary characters to show where are they now. But it’s also not as engrossing. The interesting thing is not what is happening seven years later so much as the fact that everything is more scattered and doesn’t have the sort of tight narrative structure and cohesive thesis of the first half (and the paired-up first films). That’s life. Sure, it’d be nice to have a more controlled story or at least more consistency, especially with regards to the briefly shown catchup with Saeng, but otherwise what we get in the second act also feels more real.
Isn’t that better? Heartbound and its precursors stem from an anthropological study, after all. Plambech has been studying the Thai women in Denmark for the last 15 years (she met Metz through their collaboration on the first film and they’ve since gotten together, been wed, and have kids together, which is another, albeit unseen and behind-the-scenes love story going on in this project). So there’s this marriage of Metz’s more cinematic approach to these lives and Plambech’s academic observance and hope to capture them as authentically as possible. Sometimes such a clash of method works, sometimes not; sometimes the longer you follow and study people the better, sometimes not.
The result is almost two different films joined in the middle. The sharp duality is probably not intentional despite it being a respectable transition, as it easily loses hold of some viewers. Fortunately, throughout the film, Sommai remains a central focus, and her arc in the second half does manage to maintain concern as well as scientific curiosity. Her life is the only one that progresses in a relatively natural manner, by which I mean more driven by love than by arrangement, yet even marriage for love might not allow total freedom. Dualities further intrigue: the title “heart bound” does mean both a path to love and the constraints of love.