Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE DISTURBING thing about Bangkok Bound (C4) is the way it confirms so many stereotypes: all the Thais who popped up in last night's opening programme seemed to fit rather too neatly into prepared slots - a trans- sexual who runs a cabaret bar, a compliant girlfriend, a pack of wily orientals conspiring to swindle an English girl out of her due... You can't have much confidence that the series has looked deeply at Thai life.

To be fair, though, it is about British people visiting or settled in Thailand, and what it reflects is their view of the country: hardly a real place at all, but an escapist fantasy, a means of escape from home's grey skies and mundane obligations. First up was Mark, a former taxi-driver from north London, who upped sticks following bankruptcy and divorce. In Bangkok he had met Christy, and enjoyed five days of sex before Christy told him she had been born a man. After the initial shock, Mark thought "What the hell?". Now they have been together for three years, running a bar and are seemingly very happy.

Anthony was a dancer in London, who fell in love with scuba-diving while on holiday several years ago. In Thailand he now lived on an island and worked as a diving instructor. He hoped to marry his Thai girlfriend, Mo, and like Mark was happy: "I've been lucky and I got dealt a few good cards. But I believe you make your own luck in this world."

Finally, Jackie, a single mother from Carlisle, who was training as a Thai boxer. She went to Bangkok to compete in the women's world championships, but was thwarted by Siamese deviousness (her opponent was far too big, the judges were biased).

Jackie's energetic optimism was likeable; but overall the programme was oddly dispiriting. All three of these people seemed to be making a mistake: what they thought was happiness was actually no more than an escape from some obvious kinds of misery. They could feel content because they had found a way of living without thinking too deeply. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. Though I suppose Anthony's answer would be: don't knock it until you've tried it.

It's a long way from this zone of fantasy to the place dissected in Return to Wonderland (BBC2). Five years ago, Russian Wonderland showed some of the extremes of life in post-Communist Russia, and this week's three films provide updates. Tuesday night's programme featured the extraordinary sect run by a self-proclaimed messiah called "Vissarion", in western Siberia - the pure beauty of his settlement, with its cedar-wood houses and quasi-medieval dress code, clashed bizarrely with Vissarion's cod-mystical cliches. Last night's more worldly episode followed the fall-out from Chechnya, offering some bitter contrasts. An unemployed army veteran passed the time with a friend watching video footage of the war; a mother stared at videos of scorched corpses, struggling to make out some distinguishing mark that would indicate she had found her son. Here was a continuous misery that left no room for reflection or escape; but it was filmed with a compassion and an intellectual curiosity that provided its own grounds for hope.