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Only in Hong Kong: Prostitute Films as a Genre
The world's oldest profession is alive and well in Hong Kong. Prostitution is legal in the territory, as long as a few rather interesting criteria are met. It is illegal for a sex worker to solicit herself to a man, but not illegal for him to solicit her. So long as a woman works out of a flat with no other women in it, she can prostitute herself with immunity from prosecution. Pimping, however, is illegal; so are brothels. This status apparently does nothing to stop their proprietors from putting large illuminated signs on sidewalks or over doors, ensuring that the police know where to go when they have their semi-annual sweeps. There are many other local aspects unique to prostitution in Hong Kong, but the heart of the matter remains unchanged: sex for money, money for sex. In describing the reality of the industry, I want you to understand how much a part of life prostitution is in Hong Kong. It is pervasive. Prostitution is found everywhere, and it's a fairly well-tolerated vice here. This laissez-faire attitude is reflected in the movies produced in Hong Kong.
One genre with plenty of history and diversity is the prostitute film, as in films whose plots revolve around prostitutes and/or prostitution. It's an important distinction to make because, like the city, there are prostitutes everywhere in Hong Kong films, even when you least expect them. A short list of films with prostitutes simply as characters would include 2046, The HK Triad, Metade Fumaca, Intruder, The Mad Monk, Stand Behind the Yellow Line, Dance of a Dream, Dr. Lamb, Iron Monkey, Naked Ambition, Days of Tomorrow, and Task Force, just to name a very few. Playing a prostitute in a Hollywood film is seen as an edgy, career-risking proposition, but in Hong Kong, it is just another role. Some of Hong Kong's favorite actresses have portrayed prostitutes, and their careers have not suffered: Chingmy Yau, Shu Qi, Maggie Cheung, Charlie Yeung, Zhang Ziyi, Amy Yip, Deanie Ip, Cherrie Ying, Sharla Cheung, Carrie Ng, and Veronica Yip. For this column, we are interested solely in films where prostitution is central to the plot, of which there are quite a few. Some are happy, some are sad. Some are titillating, some are repugnant. Taken as a whole, prostitute films make up an interesting, worthwhile, and, dare I say it, entertaining genre.
Herman Yau's Whispers and Moans is based on the true story of Yang Yee Shan (who also co-wrote the screenplay), who spent a year around Hong Kong's sex workers. What she found, and what we see, is an incredibly accurate and unflinching portrayal of the realities of life as a "chicken", the Cantonese slang for prostitute. Yan Ng plays Elsie, a young and idealistic social worker who wants the women to stop calling themselves chickens and start calling themselves "sex workers" as a means of overcoming shame about their job. Unfortunately for her, "sex worker" and "sex toy" sound very similar in Cantonese, especially with a Mainland accent. Thus, her first effort is met with howls of laughter when she is misunderstood. Athena Chu does a marvelous job playing Coco, a former prostitute who now works as a hostess manager, supplementing her income by exploiting a string of men so long she needs help remembering which one to call on which day. She brings an intense humanity (both good and bad) to her character.
The film is funny, poignant, and at times ugly. It ends much as it begins, with no clear statement one way or the other about anyone's moral or ethical position. But along the way we get a rare glimpse into a world most people (in Hong Kong) would rather tolerantly yet studiously ignore. The film is like its subject: it's there, and people are free to make up their own minds about it. For what it's worth, I have been told that the film's depictions are amazingly accurate; real-life counterparts of the characters were highly impressed.
Whispers and Moans tries to avoid any kind of definitive moral stance, yet its portrayal of the profession would never make one think of it as an attractive lifestyle. There are quite a number of such films in Hong Kong. Grace Lam made her film debut in PR Girls, and a more dramatic debut would be hard to find. In the film's opening scene, she wins a bet by exposing herself to scrutiny in the middle of a busy nightclub. She certainly succeeds in getting our attention. PR Girls, along with other "hostess" films like Moon, Star & Sun, revolves around young, pretty women who want a shortcut to wealth and, they think, happiness. One of the best of these films is Girls Without Tomorrow 1988, starring a young Maggie Cheung, Carrie Ng, and Petrina Fung, all part of a group of very different women doing the same thing for money. The film has its saccharine moments when it perhaps overdoes its bid for sympathy, but it also has a refreshingly sharp edge of social conscience that is often nonexistent in Hong Kong films in general and prostitute films in particular. Its sequel, Girls Without Tomorrow 1992, is also worth seeing, and not only because Pauline Chan finds out what an execrable job prostitution really is; Carina Lau turns in a much more serious performance here than she did in Gigolo and Whore 1 and 2.
Derek Yee's One Nite in Mongkok features Cecilia Cheung as a Mainland prostitute named Dan Dan who runs afoul of a hit man played by Daniel Wu. The two initially bond when he rescues her from an abusive client and they discover they both hail from the same part of China. While Cecilia Cheung's role is not necessarily the major focus of the film, she is integral to the plot, as is her profession. If nothing else, the film does well by putting neither pity nor glamour onto Dan Dan, instead allowing her to be a very normal person in a slightly abnormal situation. Films like One Nite in Mongkok and Girls Without Tomorrow share a rather bleak outlook not so much of the profession, as those who are involved in it. The films don't inspire outrage for the job as much as sadness and pity for those in it.
This concern for the protagonists is not, however, universal. A number of prostitute films revel in the inherently raunchy nature of their subject matter, exploiting the prurient potential of the genre. These films take place at different times in China's history, from the ancient past to the present, but all share enough sex, nudity, and violence to be considered similar. Ancient Chinese Whorehouse, a Category III classic starring Yvonne Yung Hung and Kent Cheng, dwells upon the more lurid aspects of sex work, sex workers, and Elvis Tsui Kam Kong. This is also an apt and thorough description of Sex & Zen 3, a story about a brothel with rather stringent and demanding employee training. Slightly less prurient, yet still Category III is Chingmy Yau's portrayal of a sexually budding empress in Lover of the Last Empress. Directed by Andrew Lau and starring Yu Rong Guang and Tony Leung Kar Fai, it is certainly higher up the brow than most similarly rated films, but still lets us know (and see) that a woman with enough will power can claw her way to the top, albeit across someone's back.
Director Corey Yuen is one of Hong Kong's best-known martial arts directors and martial arts choreographers, so it is only fitting that he gets the credit and blame for one of the most shameless exploitative action films ever put to film. Women on the Run is the story of a woman whose life seems to be on the way up, but ends up forced into prostitution, violence, and betrayal. While this film is not necessarily a classic, it provides the unique experience of watching a woman engage several assailants in a well-staged martial arts showdown. While naked.
Pauline Chan Bo Lin's brief career included several turns as a prostitute, usually in exploitation films with less-than-hopeful endings: Queen of Underworld, Escape From Brothel, Behind The Pink Door, The Girls From China, Girls Without Tomorrow, Run For Life - Ladies From China, Sex For Sale, and Rogues from the North. Many of the films have production values as low as the moral tone of their content, and the symbiosis of the two, like the films, is both compelling and repugnant. It is too easy to revel in the films' awful production and forget the realities behind the depictions, but sometimes, such sins may be forgiven. One of Chan's co-stars in Queen of Underworld was Amy Yip, Hong Kong's "Queen of Bust". In that film, she plays a young woman whose life is turned upside down, and at rock bottom, there is a bed with dirty sheets. Yet she overcomes all odds and rises to become, of course, the Queen. Yip also played a more tragic prostitute role in China Dolls, a resolutely depressing story of a woman whose life becomes unbearable and doesn't improve very much after that.
Not all films that give us an unpleasantly realistic glimpse into prostitution suffer from low production or bad direction. Director Fruit Chan has made what some have called the "prostitute trilogy": Little Cheung, Durian Durian, and Hollywood Hong Kong. The last film of the trilogy is a remarkable story of how one young prostitute destroys the lives of a handful of people who didn't have much to begin with. Zhou Xun is remarkable for her ability to inhabit a very complex, delicate role and do so with such skill that she evokes sympathy and disgust in equal measure. A well-made, compelling film, Hollywood Hong Kong tells its story in beautiful detail that films with lower aspirations cannot match, painting vivid portraits of very human, flawed people.
At the other end of the spectrum from Hollywood Hong Kong's dire, grinding misery is Sandra Ng's role as the titular Golden Chicken. This prostitute comedy refuses to take itself, or its subject, seriously. A hit locally that held its own against Infernal Affairs and Hero in December of 2002, Golden Chicken is the story of a prostitute who overcomes adversity through adaptation. Kum is not pretty, but she is funny, and so are her life and trials. The film is hysterically funny at times, especially considering the number (and nature) of cameos by some of the city's biggest stars; it is refreshing to see a star of Andy Lau's stature so willing to make fun, literally, of himself. The film is also a loving look back at Hong Kong of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, recreated in unusually fine detail. Astute viewers will revel in the wardrobe and television programs glimpsed throughout the film.
By turns comic and melodramatic, Golden Chicken nevertheless serves as a kind of motivational video for the city itself, implicitly and explicitly exhorting its protagonist and audience to dig deep and find a way forward and upward. Such a message turned out to be of great importance to a city that was about to face the SARS crisis, which drives the sequel. An equally well-made and engaging film, its more serious tone and implications rendered it heavier fare than the original. Golden Chicken 2 didn't do as well at the box office, but is still very worth watching. Perhaps because SARS was seen as something beyond people's choices, the second film makes more of a moral statement about the disease than the protagonist's job.
Dante Lam's Naked Ambition is a comedy about prostitution, though the two protagonists are male (and not gigolos). Louis Koo and Eason Chan lose their "normal" jobs, and in a fit of inspiration decide to localize a Japanese phenomenon: the sex guide. The two friends soon find themselves movers and shakers in Hong Kong's sex industry, capable of making or breaking an establishment, or a career, with a few strokes of the keyboard. Along the way we are treated to another series of amusing cameos, especially those of Jo Koo and Josie Ho as prostitutes who realize the personal and professional burdens of fame and choose different solutions to them. Naked Ambition, like Golden Chicken, takes an honest and non-judgmental comic look at prostitution, never falling into moralizing about anything more than friendship. This frequent refusal to take a moral stance is one of Hong Kong cinema's strongest assets. While the city's films often gleefully engage in melodrama of epic proportion, the kind of moralizing one might also expect is thankfully absent, although sometimes this moral ambiguity may leave a viewer feeling disoriented.
Miss Du Shi Niang is an adaptation of a stage play that simply takes for granted its female protagonist's profession. Considering she is played by the radiant Michele Reis, it is easy to forget that the film is a story about a young scholar who falls in love with a prostitute. Daniel Wu quickly spends his tuition on his new love, who struggles to decide between the risks of love and the security of money. Perhaps operating on the play's original temporal context, the circumstances of their meeting take a distant back seat to their relationship; it is simply accepted that from such liaisons, love may blossom. This tacit acceptance is not, however, limited to the past.
One of the things that makes Patrick Leung's 1997 film Task Force such a quirky, endearing film is that the love story is between a police officer (Leo Ku) and a prostitute (Charlie Yeung). What is so odd is that none of Leo Ku's colleagues criticize him for dating a prostitute. They offer him the same kind of advice that applies to a typical romance. Their tacit acceptance of the relationship is made all the more meaningful by their repeated, sincere expressions of hope and support for their colleague and his partner, her career seemingly unimportant. That, in a nutshell, sums up Hong Kong's attitudes about prostitution and Hong Kong's prostitute movies. You will find many unexpected things, and most of the time it is up to you to decide what to think and feel about them.
Published July 23, 2007