True Women for Sale
Starring: Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Prudence Liew Mei-kwan, Race Wong Yuen-ling, Sammy Leung Chi-kin
Director: Herman Yau Lai-to
The Chinese title of True Women for Sale - 'I don't sell my body, I sell my womb' - is perhaps the most provocative aspect of this entertaining but uneven look at the local sex trade. Herman Yau's loose sequel to Whisper and Moans, one of last year's underrated treasures, shares thematic and stylistic similarities to its predecessor. But the script, again co-authored by the director and Elsa Yang Yee-shan, is so unfocused and rife with extraneous incidents that its more fun and meaningful aspects almost get lost in the process.
That they don't is a tribute to Yau's usual lack of pretensions, a fine feel for Hong Kong, and Anthony Wong. Although best known for his grizzly, over-the-top performances, Wong ranks among the screen's most versatile actors, and it's a pleasure to watch his low-key manoeuvrings as the kindhearted but not altogether altruistic insurance agent Lau Fu-yi. One of the film's cleverest bits is projecting Lau's calculator-like assessment of each new acquaintance's value in terms of estimated premiums. But there's more to him than a calculating heart, as evidenced by his interaction with Lin-fa (Race Wong), the young mainland widow of a middle-aged Lau client who she married as a way of immigrating to Hong Kong.
Now a single mother and pregnant with twins, Lin-fa lives in a Sham Shui Po tenement that is home to dozens of one-woman brothels. It's not exactly the best environment to bring up children, particularly with neighbours such as Lai Chung-chung (Prudence Liew, right). Lai is the movie's oddest character, a drug-addicted prostitute whose greatest shame is her rotten teeth and who raises chickens as an almost sacred duty (chicken, after all, is Cantonese slang for prostitute).
The two women illustrate the central issue alluded to in the Chinese title: whether being a whore is any less honourable than marrying and having babies for financial security. Like many Yau features, True Women for Sale is refreshing in that it doesn't shy away from social topics that are usually anathema to commercial releases. As well as its gender politics, the movie touches on residency rights for people from the mainland and the injustices facing new immigrants - subjects that fit naturally within the context.
Less germane is a major subplot involving photojournalist Chi (Sammy Leung) who is intent on getting to the roots of Lai's personal saga. Her saga is, indeed, interesting, and provides Susan Shaw Yin-yin with a poignant cameo as Lai's estranged mother. But spending so much time on Chi's professional life is superfluous and adds little to the proceedings. Equally irrelevant is the depiction of Lau's unrequited flirtations in his office, which jarringly takes him out of the movie's main milieu without adding depth to our understanding of the quirky workaholic.
The film's 90 minutes go by quickly, but the picture's real women would have been more saleable, cinematically speaking, if afforded less plot detours and more pertinent whispers and moans.
True Women for Sale opens today