Review: Freelance life as lethal as Red Bull mixed with coffee

Usually, I’m a pretty hard worker. I can type and type into the AMs before crashing and going to class or work the next morning, no problem. But after watching Freelance: The Movie, the idea of forcing myself to work during ungodly hours seemed damaging and inorganic, and I voluntarily (!) distanced myself from the keyboard in exchange for sleep and sun.

Freelance, which opened this past Thursday on 3 September, tells the story of Yoon (Sunny Suwanmethanon), a sleep-deprived freelance graphic designer who works 24/7, and develops health problems. Since he is a freelancer, he does not have health insurance and has to visit a public hospital’s dermatology institute to treat the rashes and sores spreading across his body. He develops a crush on his doctor, Imm (Davika Horne), and tries his best to follow her medical advice. Meanwhile, Jay (Violette Wautier) screens Yoon’s work and keeps him on top of deadlines.

Yoon getting a check up from Imm, a doctor at a public hospital. Screenshot from the music video for the official OST

Freelance, whose full title translates to Freelance...no getting sick, no resting, no falling in love with the doctor (ฟรีแลนซ์..ห้ามป่วย ห้ามพัก ห้ามรักหมอ) and has the official English title of Heart Attack, is produced by GTH, the film studio under entertainment giant GMM Grammy. Any moviegoing Thai is familiar with GTH’s signature films, usually either ghost films or lovey-dovey ones, both full of jokes and a packaged happy ending delivered by familiar-faced celebrities. Whenever a new GTH film comes out, you just say “I’m gonna go and watch that new GTH film, man” instead of saying the title.

That said, when I entered the theater I was fully expecting the male lead to fall into a super cute and happy never-ending romance with the pretty doctor. Instead, I was met with scenes of Yoon cursing at, then apologizing to his body for breaking down as he festers and rots from the inside while Photoshopping in a filthy room. Sunny, usually a polished and smirking actor, is shown as a weak, decaying skeleton with dark circles under his eyes.

Yoon narrates the story, and we are always in his head as he stays up for days and days enlarging boobs and airbrushing girls in Photoshop. As Yoon feels frustrated at his clients for confusingly vague work assignments, so do we. As Yoon’s health deteriorates, so we tire with him. In the back of our minds, even long after the film has ended and we work, typing away, we wonder if we will develop spots and sores ilke Yoon did as he stared at his iMac and mechanically scribbled on his tablet. It’s a disturbing thought for a resident of a country usually known for its sabai sabai-ness.

 

 

Yoon develops sores and rashes on his body due to the harsh nature of his work. Screenshots from the official trailer

It’s telling that Freelance was directed by indie director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. Nawapol is a critics’ favorite: his films, such as 36 (2012) won Turkey’s International Antalya Golden Orange Award for the Best International Film and Best Film at Poland’s 7th Five Flavors Film Festival in 2013 and Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (2013) won Best Asian Film at the 50th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. Nawapol is also locally and commercially popular, having written the GTH romantic hit Bangkok Traffic Love Story (2009).

In Freelance, Nawapol expertly illuminates the life of a Thai freelancer in alternating humorous and horrifying ways.

For instance, the entire basis of Yoon’s job is based on informal promises and relationships to clients. “I have to finish this work,” he says, as sores rot his skin and his eyes darken from sleepless days. “I said I would, so I have to.” Yoon is always in danger of being jobless because if he misses just one deadline or an incomplete task, his reputation as a freelancer will be damaged, and clients will send jobs to younger whiz kids with more speed and energy than him. As such, the nature of a freelancer’s job is solitary by nature, he explains to Imm.

 

Yoon chugging down coffee at the local 7-11. Screenshot from one of the film's promotional videos

“You’re getting old, almost thirty,” someone says to Yoon. Staying awake for days on end used to be a point of pride for Yoon before it became a dash for self damage. Reluctantly, he queues for hours and hours in a crowded, run-down public hospital to get a checkup only because the private hospital is expensive and as a freelancer, he doesn’t have social security or health insurance.

Yoon sees Imm’s textbooks during his check up and realize she is still studying. “I recommend coffee mixed with Red Bull,” he advises. She disapproves with this suggestion, as well as his entire haphazard freelance lifestyle. Doctor and patient cannot reach an understanding when Yoon declares all hobbies, all socializing, all relaxation as huge wastes of time that he could spend working. In fact, all of Yoon’s personal relationships—save for the 7-11 clerk he buys toxic food from, Jay the ad agency producer that sends him work,  and the doctor he sees for a few minutes a month—have completely deteriorated.

(Interestingly, the main sponsors of Freelance include Thai Life Insurance and 7-11.)

 

Yoon, after taking a sleep-inducing medicine while Photoshopping away a model’s stomach. Screenshot from the official trailer

Yoon is no different than a factory worker without the luxury of a timeclock, scribbling away on his tablet until close brushes with lethality. Ironically, Yoon grows sores and rashes as he erases pimples from airbrushed magazine covers.

The work of a freelancer, according to an earlier interview by Prachatai of Kengkij Kitireanglak, lecturer of sociology and anthropology at Chiang Mai University, is attractive to young designers in the creative economy who want to escape the factory or office system because it allows them to work from anywhere, at anytime. Their labor is also not controlled directly by a boss in the hierarchical office or factory. However, the drawbacks of working outside of the formal employment sector are of course, the loss of social security benefits and a work system to fall back on, says Kengkij.

Yoon in Freelance is therefore a very realistic depiction of the freelancers that make up the “99 per cent of the Thai creative economy,” according to Kengkij. In fact, the director Nawapol drew the inspiration for the plot from his own life. Nawapol used to be a freelancer who got rashes from working 24/7, and had a crush on the doctor at the public hospital he went to.

 

 

Yoon working in his room. Screenshots from the official trailer

Freelance is essentially a cautionary tale for the freelancer, warning against the lack of self-care, social connections, and leisure when being completely devoted to work and reputation. Don’t despair, though. While being darker and more insightful than the average GTH film, Freelance carries its heavy content along with seriously funny quips, a soothingly hilarious beach scene, and a lovely OST sung by Violette and singer-songwriter Aphiwat “Stamp” Ueathawonsuk, “Vacation Time,” actually a Thai cover of the original English version by Part Time Musicians.  

Listening to it repeatedly has convinced me that I’ve had a more-than-sufficient midweek work hiatus. But now that I realize that I’m typing this at an ungodly hour, I hear Doctor Imm strongly advising me a good night’s sleep.