BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry offers an insightful and vaguely terrifying look at the Japanese export of idol culture in a minimalistic documentary with a lot to say.
The relatively impressive and vaguely terrifying documentary BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry, courtesy of Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, concerns for the most part the exporting of the Japanese idol concept to Thailand, where the titular girl-group enjoys a healthy amount of success and an unhealthy amount of attention.
Impressive, then, because the unfussy documentary style keeps things minimalistic and allows many of the group’s members to speak for themselves. But terrifying for that, as their interviews reveal absurd worship at the altar of superficiality, exposing the creeping rot of the entertainment industry, the microcosmic ecosystem of social media, and the bizarrely inhuman delusions encouraged by fame and popularity.
BNK48 are the Thai sister group of the Japanese cultural phenomenon AKB48, and BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry details the rigorous selection process, which reduces applicants to little more than their social media profiles and is quick to cycle through them if they fail to meet seemingly arbitrary standards. It fosters a chilling emotional detachment in the girls, who’re essentially dehumanised, desperate to improve and become more popular even if that means navigating a world of almost constant antagonism or reinventing their personalities on the fly.
The overall impression is one of extreme artifice, but the success of BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry is in Thamrongrattanarit’s ability to find humanity and individuality in his interviewees. The idol phenomenon is bizarre and evidently unhealthy, but it’s unequally undeniably a legitimate phenomenon – and why? We’ve seen the concept satirised before, quite recently in Netflix’s Back Street Girls: Gokudolls, but Thamrongrattanarit’s film isn’t an outlandish skewering, but a sincere investigation into what compels young girls to essentially abandon who they are to become whatever pastiche a braying audience would like them to be.
The stripped-down one-on-one interview format feels telling in itself, especially when BNK48: GirlsDon’t Cry deploys archive footage of the group’s outlandish performances and public appearances. In that setting, the girls become quietly tragic, less creations of a manipulative and vampiric industry than victims of it; hostages held at the mercy of extravagance and vapidity, staring desperately at their captors. In that sense, BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry has value in how it assures us that girls do cry after all.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.