2 stars out of 5
Films about prostitution and the woes of the sex trade, if portrayed without authenticity, run the risk of being seen as voyeuristic and gratuitous.
Director Kenneth Bi’s third feature, after the made-in-Singapore Rice Rhapsody and The Drummer, falls exactly into this pitfall.
A Hong Kong Category III film, rated R21 here, Girl$ features several graphic and kinky sex scenes and it purports to pull the curtain back on the apparent social phenomenon of more young girls increasingly accepting ‘paid dates’ – a euphemism for escorts who offer ‘optional’ sex.
With the advent of online forums, social networking and instant messaging, buyers and sellers in the sex industry are finding one another easier than ever before, it seems. Even so, some girls act as agents for others; being above the fray as such, they are in a more justifiable and less tainted position.
Bi’s film follows the lives of four pretty young things, named Lin (Una Lin), Ronnie (Bonnie Xian), Icy (Michelle Wai) and Gucci (Minyi Wang), as they use sex, in lieu of gainful employment, as a means towards their individual goals, including the accumulation of wealth, the search for a mate – talk about looking for love in the wrong places – and the raising of funds to buy material goods.
All appear to be in their late teens or early twenties, with the exception of innocent schoolgirl Gucci, who is just 16. Her attempt to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder, so that she can buy a namesake brand-name bag, is meant to provide comic relief – not least when her own sleazy brother unwittingly turns up as a bidder.
Among the perils for the girls, there is the threat of disease and friendships torn asunder by the sex trade. There is also indignity and violence: one girl is videotaped without her knowledge while an acquaintance of the group, a girl named Silver, falls victim to a gruesome attack.
That sub-plot is never resolved and it underscores how sensationalistic and shallow Bi’s film is. The film doesn’t bother to develop its characters beyond the superficial level and, as such, the trials and tribulations of the girls seem not to matter much.
‘Paid dates’ also points to a growing sense of alienation and ennui afflicting the younger Internet generation; Bi fails to really offer any insights in the inner lives and emotional conflict facing the girls.
While the film is full of attitude (the hip-hop soundtrack is full of loud, angry-sounding Cantonese lyrics) and hints at the angst of its characters, who show their ‘wild’ side with catfights, by beating a bad client, and by running and giggling with abandon in public, its dramatic conflicts come off fake.
As it is, the film will likely cop accusations of being a soft-core porn flick masquerading as social commentary. In truth, it is an opportunistic title, trading on the very real dangers of such online-facilitated sexual liaisons to make a quick buck at the box office.
And it doesn’t even bother with the charade to pretend to care for its characters in any meaningful way. Sex being a commodity is the subject matter here; it’s also the name of the game for this film.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel