Societies are crazy things. Culturally, we’ve progressed so far that almost anything your heart desires is available at the click of a button – certainly, the click of a mouse – but at what cost? I’ve heard it said many times that the constantly evolving mechanization of our world has left us with an entire generation of young adults who’ve little to no means of coping in interpersonal ways – they’re only used to making conversation via webposts and chatrooms – and I’ve no doubt that some of those sentiments get to the heart of what director Kenneth Bi wanted to say in tackling such a controversial film as 2010’s GIRL$.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In modern day Hong Kong, the dating scene is always only a single ‘click’ away as men and women scour the internet dating services for ‘paid dates.’ Girls are allowed (and encouraged) to post what they will and will not do for a price, but little do they know what price this may extract from their souls. Into this world comes Icy (played by Michelle Wai), Ronnie (Seli Xian), Lin (Una Lin), and Gucci (Venus Wong). Each of these young ladies has different reasons for hoping to be paid for their ‘services,’ and each of them has something unique to offer.
Get ready, people: the world’s oldest profession comes face-to-face with society’s least-prepared consumers. I don’t say that as a slight to any generation. Rather, I offer it up as a reflection on the world that’s depicted here. Most of these characters are at that age when they’re still searching to understand what they want in life; they’ve yet to fully come to grips with their actions – there’s an undercurrent of irresponsibility to each of them – but, by the climax, they’re made some modest strides forward professionally moreso than they do personally. (Hey, ya gotta start somewhere!)
For my tastes, so much of GIRL$ is more of a commentary on these characters than it really is on the world. True, Chinese films tend to have some very high cultural restrictions on the use and portrayal of sex and nudity, but this is a far cry from the more rigorous exploitation of ‘sex as a selling point’ that one endures in more Western films and features. Here, sex is a thematic element – a means to an end for these ladies – and despite what some may think there’s not a lot of glorification in here. Rather, the act itself is often times photographed almost incidentally – shot in tight close-ups or deliberately out-of-focus or captured in angles that are relatively tame compared to the truly manipulative displays of Japanese ‘Pink’ films or American ‘skin flicks.’ It’s an artistic sleight of hand, one used principally to keep the focus right where it should be: on these girls.
Lin is struggling to maintain any normal relationship – she’s shown in several scenes trying to emotionally disconnect with family over the cell phone – and she uses sex as a means of control or lack thereof. The aristocratic Ronnie lives a life of luxury – she’s wealthy, though we’re never told how or why – and she uses her encounters as a way of stylistically ‘giving back’ to her inferiors (I won’t spoil it, but it’s a very clever way she does it). Icy, the madame, is really just trying to get through her workaday existence – she arranges the fine points for the ladies’ in her stable – and the centerpiece of her world is a deadbeat boyfriend she simply wants to keep happy (her definition of ‘love’). And Gucci is the most relatable character for mainstream audiences here – she only desires enough money to buy a really good purse, so she turns to ‘paid dating’ but can’t quite seal any deal due to her youthful expectations.
Together, these girls find one another and do what they can to construct their own microcosm of a natural society. There’s always danger to their safety – there’s a deliberate storyline of their two greatest threats (violence and AIDs) reminding them and us of the constant threat in such a livelihood – but, together, they’ll find a way to minimally face every challenge. Once their lives intersect with a real menace, it does leave an imprint on them. Like it or not, they’re forced to re-examine their lives, and they do change (the eventual lesson of the picture).
But how long will it last?
As an audience, we’re not told, but we’re encouraged to make up our minds as each character is given a coda to show what they’re doing differently. The rest of the story? Director Bi leaves that for us to discuss on our own.
Lastly, I’ve read a handful of reviews in preparation for penning my own. Somewhere along the way, I think some people (reviewers) may’ve lost sight of GIRL$ central conceit – that this isn’t about glorifying a way of life, that this isn’t about displaying how some can best find happiness – because they’ve come down fairly hard on the more titillating aspects of the picture. Superficially, some might knock the picture for being only skin deep … but isn’t that exactly what the girls are knocking about their own lives in the film’s closing segments? If you didn’t need this 90 minutes to come to grips with that relatively simple lesson, then perhaps you can find solace in knowing that some folks still do … and I’d encourage the film on that level alone.
GIRL$ is produced by BIG Pictures, Buddy Film Creative Workshop, Cameron Entertainment Ltd., and Local Production. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Funimation. For those of you needing to have it clearly spelled out, this is a Cantonese-spoken-language film with English sub-titles. As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds impressive consistently; there’s some ongoing camera trickery early on that might be perceived as a bit annoying – I say that mostly because I can’t read Chinese, so I’m at a loss to what some of it was saying – but that narrative technique disappears as the picture goes on. It’s also worth noting that GIRL$ was an Official Selection of the 2012 Arizona Underground Film Festival and the 2012 Syracuse International Film Festival. As is often the case, the disk is light on extras; there’s a series of short few-minute blurbs on the ‘making of’ the film, but they’re essentially little more than bloated advertising materials. Personally, I would’ve liked a bit more – especially when you consider the somewhat breakthrough nature of adult-themed storytelling at work here – but it is what it is.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. No, this has nothing to do with the HBO series (if you look close, you’ll see it’s not really even named the same), so I couldn’t say whether or not there’s grounds for comparison. However, GIRL$ should serve as a cautionary tale to young men and women anywhere about the dangers of growing up believing in nothing more than the pursuits of fleeting fame, fashion, and fortune. In the end, all you’ll have is yourself, when what you really need are the people you genuinely and legitimately love without having to pay for it. Excellent performances by all of the female leads make this one worth a view.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Funimation provided me with an advance DVD copy of GIRL$ by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.