Tuesday, May 26, 2009
WHISPERS AND MOANS (Hong Kong; 2007)
D: Herman Yau Lai-to.
W: Herman Yau Lai-to, Yang Yee-shan.
Ten days in the lives of a cross-section of Mongkok sex workers, led by weary "mamasans" Candice Yu and Athena Chu, in an industry on the wane, as they contend with the nightly rituals of club life—petty rivalries, pathologically abusive customers, gangsters, drug abuse—and the the daily rituals of survival: dysfunctional relationships, deadbeat sugardaddies, syphillis, AIDS and (the worst threat of all) mainland Chinese girls who'll offer steep discounts and fresher faces just to keep sending money back home.
Director Herman Yau reteams with liberal feminist social anthropologist and author Yang Yee-shan (his co-writer on this and the excellent FROM THE QUEEN TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE), working from her 2006 bestseller of the same name (previously published in 2002; and yes, it sits on my shelf!), a collection of mostly hard-luck stories mined during a year spent shadowing the denizens of Hong Kong's sex trade and learning, for the most part, that a lack of common sense is often the working girl's (or guy's) most vicious enemy. That theme is successfully carried over to the film, but unfortunately, so is the author, in the form of alter-ego Yan Ng, a pie-eyed social worker whose increasingly didactic refrains about unionization as the key to basic human rights and protection for prostitutes is met with a fairly predictable volley of sad-sack stories (both past and present) from the workers themselves, even though Yau's softballing of their often difficult, directionless lives ultimately supports the social worker's contention.
The slice-of-life concept would make this an appealing ensemble piece for nearly any performer, although some of those here are a little too green to put across the devastating emotional complexities required by the script. Signature moment is probably a lengthy, late-film diatribe belted out by a hard-working, righteous mainland hooker (newcomer Misia Chan) when she's informed that her sterling reputation may have just been jeopardized when jealous co-worker Chu released a syphillis-infected cloud of urine on her in a hotel swimming pool.
The biggest career leap, such as it is, is handled by Patrick Tang, as a popular gigolo who smoothly services housewives and mistresses, verbally vents his frustrations on his female colleagues, and saves for a sex change operation for his transsexual lover (Don Li). Tang, Li, and most of their young castmates do alright (if not exactly stellar) by the sexual frankness of the words they're fed, but there's a conservatism in the sexual imagery (which is almost always depicted under the covers, behind closed doors, or from the shoulders up) that actually undermines the filmmakers' drive to depict the unpleasant realities of the trade. Where 80's and 90's Hong Kong films about gigolos and whores often used nudity and sex for sheer exploitation value, to not see it used for political value in an issues-driven film such as this is somewhat of a copout, no doubt to keep the cast from having to dig too deep. Yau and his team compensate by composing an authentic milieu of night clubs, karaoke rooms, micro-brothels and a medical clinic in which the cast can function in an almost improvisatory way, one that echoes Michael Radford's DANCING AT THE BLUE IGUANA (2000) to such a degree that there's little doubt Yau used it as an inspiration.