Thursday, September 23, 2010

Whispers and Moans - 2009

Director: Herman Yau-Lai Too


This ensemble piece about the Hong Kong sex industry is remarkable at least, for avoiding the standard cliches in almost any film ever to have featured a prostitute.

Most big East Asian cities have an immediately recognizable, neon-lit, reddish light district; girls in ridiculous ball gowns, caked in make up, fake nails and incredibly long eyelashes, stand outside their hostess bars fishing for groups of businessmen to pop in for a drink, and a sing-song. The area in Hong Kong where this is set, has a particularly notorious one, apparently. Girls wander the streets soliciting clients, and the bars, it would appear from this film, are essentially glitzy, eighties decor sex markets. The film, whilst being a little soapy here and there, doesn't shy away from things, and doesn't make excuses for the unusual opinion at its heart.

Whispers and Moans takes one of these bars and, ignoring the customers largely, looks closely at the lives of the workers. Apart from the actual work, the dilemmas are all very familiar. The industry is under threat due to a weakening economy and an influx of cheaper workers, disparagingly referred to as, "main-landers". Two women at the top, separate and suited, who worked long enough at the bottom, are in charge. They are the managers, organizing the liaisons, dealing with customer relations. Like a mirror on a normal office, the girls struggle for recognition and promotion, to work long enough to become a manager or retire. Once their time is served they can head back to their hometowns with honour, eventually finding positions like head teachers. Some hate their jobs, but know there isn't much else, others put on a brave face.

Adapted from a book that was based on interviews with sex-workers, the film rings resoundingly true. One girl, keeping her life a secret from her innocent boyfriend, upon his proposal realizes that at the wedding his guests will be her clients. She cuts him off, throwing her phone into a bin. Tony, a young man also working as a host, frequents the girls bar to take out his pent-up aggression on the girls working there. The girls in turn head to his, getting drunk and screaming at him. It is a vicious cycle and the only time they can unleash. These stories have such a believable feeling that they must be derived from the books revelations.

Instead of looking at all the reasons these girls get into prostitution and showing they could have been something else, something better, Whispers and Moans respects them for their choices. It is utterly remarkable when towards the end, expecting them to decry the horrors of the job, one character has an extended speech about, quote, what a great whore she was, and how much fun being a whore is. This is not to say it makes it seem like a perfect working environment. One character, so happy she is named Happy, is the model professional. She deals with upwards of four customers a day, is revered for her positive attitude and sunny disposition, but when she finds out she might have caught an STD drops the facade and uncovers layers of pain hidden from the offset.One girl succumbs to a drug addiction and is fired from the club. We see her gradual decline, as she slumps further and further down-market, until she is patrolling the street, a bottom-feeder to the nearby glamour.

There are some balancing points to this; the charity worker who tries earnestly to persuade the girls to switch professions, and care for their health. She is largely ignored, but is a constant presence in the film. Though perhaps, as a character, is a bit two dimensional, her inclusion is understandable. Despite her standpoint, however, she doesn't stray from the message of the film, that regardless of the stigma the women are proud workers. The films ask us to share the respect, rather than pity. They do a horrendous job, clearly, but their motivations are never belittled and neither are they. Rather than decrying prostitution we are told to accept it and withhold our judgement. Portrayed without the the standard biases, and narratives of most films on this subject it feels really genuine. It has some moments of melodrama, but on the whole is far more interesting than dozens of other movies on a similar subject.