Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘Heartbound’

This extraordinary film spans 10 years and two continents as it observes the complicated loyalties that bind humans together.

Courtesy of TIFF


Heartbound (Hjertelandet)
(Denmark/Netherlands/Sweden, 90 min.)
Dir. Janus Metz, Sine Plambech
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

What are the borders of love? Heartbound offers a different kind of love story as it observes the marriages in the sparsely populated fishing village of Thy, Denmark, where the population of Thai residents has increased exponentially over the past quarter century. Point zero for the Thai invasion is a woman named Sommai, who came to Denmark 25 years ago after striking up a relationship with a dashing Dane named Niels who was her client whilst on a “sex vacation” in the tourist town of Pattaya, Thailand. Make no mistake, though: Sommai isn’t a mail order bride and Niels isn’t a sugar daddy. The circumstances of their relationship might be unconventional, but directors Janus Metz and Sine Plambech find in this marriage a fascinating case study in the transactions of love, respect, security, and comfort afforded by wedlock. This extraordinary film spans 10 years and two continents as it observes the complicated loyalties that bind humans together.

Heartbound challenge audiences’ expectations by following Sommai, Niels, and their fellow Thai-Dane marriages over a decade. Sommai recognizes the practical benefits of her marriage to Niels, which seems to have evolved into genuine love over the years, and she uses her privilege to help other Thai women improve prospects for themselves and their families. The men offer them financial and personal security, while the women offer comfort and companionship through the dark Danish days.

Sommai plays matchmaker with the men of Thy and the women of Thailand. Heartbound’s thorough analysis of its subjects observes a mix of successes and failures in Sommai’s pairings. As with marriages founded on true love, weddings made for the mutual benefits of two parties have no guarantee to succeed or fail.

The film introduces two couples in Denmark whom Sommai has brought together. Basit is married to Frank, who offers her a safe home following her abusive first marriage. Mong, Sommai’s niece, enjoys a job at the factory, sending money home to her family, while offering a fresh start on life for John in the aftermath of his first wife’s suicide. Both couples acknowledge awkwardness and difficulty in their early days of marriage, especially due to language barriers, but, as with any functional long-term relationship, communication proves to be key as they learn the other’s language. They speak of finding common ground, respect—and, sometimes, love.

Metz and Plambech use as a case study the matchmaking of Mong’s sister, Kae, who arrives in Thailand on a tourist visa and meets Kjeld, an awkward, bashful Dane who hasn’t yet settled down. The early footage might be from 2006, but watching Heartbound in the age of the Tinder swipe, Sommai’s effort to make a match doesn’t seem that impersonal or impractical. Kae and Kjeld exchange basic info and a few awkward conversations to get a feel for one another. They both agree—or “swipe right,” in Tinder-ese—and a Danish law binds them together for seven years to ensure that the transaction is perfectly legitimate.

At the same time, Sommai strives to secure a husband for Saeng, a young woman from her home village. This case is urgent since Saeng is too young to marry in Denmark, but faces an inevitable future if she stays in Thailand. The options for survival back home are too few and the doc shows Saeng follow her friend Lom to the bars of Pattaya where tourists—mostly drunk white men—ogle their teenage bodies and ask their price. The dynamics of power, control, colonialism, and misogyny make the case studies extremely urgent and complicated. One cannot judge the position in which any of the subjects find themselves because Metz and Plambech show clearly the elements of necessity fueling each case.

Flash-forward seven years later and the cameras witness the growth or dissolution of each marriage. The characters have aged before the audiences’ eyes. There are bonds and there are rifts. There is warmth and there is bitterness.

What looks a bit rough in the early years, partly due to vast improvements in digital filmmaking over time, becomes an aesthetically striking production. As the characters age, the shot compositions become more remarkable and more rich. The stories and characters become more complicated too, as both the men and women find themselves conflicted by the realities of their ages and their approaching deaths. Some of the women want to return home, while some men don’t want to die in a foreign land. Heartbound brings each relationship to a series of major questions that test the durability of each marriage after years of effort.

Heartbound offers an intimate glimpse into the human condition that one hopes to find in the best of documentaries. It offers a fine marriage of anthropology and art as Metz and Plambech, who are partners in life, bring together a film that resonates with the passion and dedication with which it was made. Heartbound draws primarily upon Plaumbech’s anthropological research, which expanded into short documentaries made with Metz as the years progressed, and shows the maturation of the filmmakers as the project ages. The dedication to the project and characters gives Heartbound an accomplished scope of grandeur as it charts years, lives, and continents to tell the stories of these women and men.

What is truly remarkable about Heartbound is that, outside of the circumstances that forged them, these marriages resemble any other relationship that has endured for so long. They are exchanges of compromise, companionship, and devotion. In any equation, love is a the deciding factor, but it’s not the only one. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Heartbound screens:
-Sat, Sept. 8 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 4:15 PM
-Mon, Sept. 10 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:45 PM
-Sat, Sept. 15 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 10:15 PM

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival including an interview with Sine Plaumbech and Janus Metz!

Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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