Title: Buffalo Girls
Director: Todd Kellstein
An unflinching and unadorned look at Thailand’s underground world of children’s boxers — of which there are over 30,000, including many young females — “Buffalo Girls” is a nonfiction film tailormade for the scrunchy-faced, hand-wringing concern of the NPR set, a surprising and sad glimpse into a heretofore unknown subculture that will have any sensible first-worlder saying, “Hey… at least I don’t have it that bad.”
The movie unfolds mostly in Rayong changwat — a low-lying coastal province in the south central area of the country, nestled against the Gulf of Thailand — and its title is a nod to the local derogatory term for the poor farmers that dot the region. It takes as its two subjects two eight-year-olds (yes, you read that right), Stam and Pet, who have taken up Muay Thai prizefighting to help provide for their families. As mentioned, this isn’t some exotic curiosity, but rather an entire industry. While there is a pinch of pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow self-betterment incentive involved (“To save money for school so I can have more education,” replies one girl, when asked of her motivations), for many families this is viewed as something of an economic necessity.
So Stam and Pet — the former a cheery little warrior who wears make-up in the ring, the latter a sometimes reticent survivor of a crippling childhood illness who sports a partially shaved head as part of her mother’s prayer deal for her health — train like any other athletes, lifting little weights and honing their roundhouse kicks. Eventually, they square off for the 44-pound championship title, with a cash prize that could forever change the lives of one family.
Director Todd Kellstein takes a largely hands-off approach to his subject matter, not unlike fellow documentarians Frederick Wiseman or Yung Chang, though with admittedly more of an emphasis on interview footage than either of those filmmakers. There is significant thematic overlap with David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s recent “Girl Model,” which focuses in large part on a pubescent Eastern European who gives modeling in Japan a crack in an effort to help her family, and also didn’t offer up easy, empty advocacy.
But Kellstein’s fly-on-the-wall tack, while fair, also eventually comes off as indifferent, or at least an intellectual dodge. There is a difference, after all, between passing judgment on a subject and subjecting it to honest questioning. When a bookie, Walee Niyom, talks about in-fight baht kickbacks or pledges that various bettors make to fighters, in an attempt to encourage greater effort, the film doesn’t fully dig into this. Nor is its explanation of the country’s kiddie-level fight scene infrastructure solid, in any particular way, shape or form.
Stam and Pet are engaging kids, and their situations make them sympathetic subjects. But Kellstein confuses an implicit and sidelong inquiry into the exploitative underbelly of this unusual subculture with a complete lack of mooring context. The result feels frustratingly aimless, even as one wonders about the futures of these and other little girls.
NOTE: “Buffalo Girls” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7. For more information on the film, visit www.BuffaloGirlsTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon