03/12/2010 Leave a comment
Country: Singapore, Thailand
Language: Mandarin, Tagalog, English, Cantonese
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Starring: Yang Kuei-mei, Ananda Everingham, Loo Zihan, Katashi Chen, Jeszlene Zhou
Ratings: IMDb: 5.1/10
2007 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard (official selection)
2007 Pusan International Film Festival
This is a film that is notable for truly blurring the lines of national ownership. It fully embraces the age of cross-border collaboration and ownership. The director is Ekachai Uekrongtham, a Thai theatre and film director who is based in Singapore and is the founding artistic director of local theatre company ACTION Theatre. His repertoire includes the popular stage musical Chang & Eng. The film is set in Singapore, in particular, its red light district of Geylang. But among the film’s financers are Singapore-based Spicy Apple Films and the Hong Kong-Netherlands company Fortissimo Films aside from Singapore’s InnoForm Media. Amongst the multi-national cast is Taiwanese starlet Yang Kuei-mei (who has appeared in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)). There is up-and-coming actor Ananda Everingham, who has appeared in the Thai horror film Shutter (2004) and the Singapore production The Leap Years (2008), and he himself though born in Thailand, is of Laotian-Australian nationalities. There is also Singaporean writer-director (and ADM alumni) Loo Zihan.
I opted to classify the film both under Thailand and Singapore. Singapore, primarily because there is definitely no shying away from the fact that the story is based there. And Thailand because of Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Thai roots that definitely becomes pertinent in his direction of this film. Unless helmed by Loo Zihan himself, one of the few Singapore directors who is open about his homosexuality and about discussing controversial themes in his movies, Pleasure Factory would certainly have taken a wholly different angle. Uekrongtham’s involvement, however, has lead to an unusual masterpiece in South-East Asian cinema that embraces traditionally taboo topics such as prostitution, same-sex relationships, and that features explicit male nudity. The film was selected under the Un Certain Regard section of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Pleasure Factory revolves around three distinct stories set around the theme of “pleasure seekers and pleasure providers”. They involve the young army cadet, Jonathan (Loo Zihan) who wants to make the passage to manhood by engaging the services of a prostitute to help him lose his virginity, a young teenage girl (Isabella Chen) who gets initiated into the monotonous pleasure-manufacturing process of the brothel, and the jaded prostitute, Linda (Yang Kuei-Mei) who pays a young busker for a song that he never gets to sing. These three stories are later united as the characters visit the same roadside stall, a characteristic feature of Geylang.
The film’s cinema vérité shooting style adds to the realism and spontaneity of the film. Despite its provocative theme or title, the film does not sensationalize or offer gratuitous amounts of nudity just for the sake of it. Neither does it border on cliché eroticism; instead what we get is the characters moving around in the genuine environment of Geylang. We as viewers are captivated by their emotional conflicts and turmoil rather than what goes on outside. An example is a key scene where Jonathan “prepares” himself while the female prostitute takes a shower. We are treated to a full three-minute sequence of the nude man shifting his body into different positions and trying to stimulate himself for her. His insecurities that are purveyed through these little actions are what makes the film so real – it pays attention to the minute details and does not attempt to gloss over any perculiarities or trivial habits. The lack of stylistic perspectives that typical films use makes Pleasure Factory a very raw and compelling watch. Further, a heavy reliance on visual language creates a minimalist feel.
Further, there is a notable lack of dialogue and music throughout the course of the film, probably to help in the creation of a more realistic feel and also add to the emotional tension between the characters. The director of Pleasure Factory says in an interview, “To me, what was really nice was the silence, the silences at the right time, because I think the film requires you to be part of the process. What we try to do is to make a film that allows the audiences to discover at the same time as the characters.” (Tan, 2007).
But the film does not focus solely on the sex trade plying around Geylang that has given the district its notoriety. Rather, it proffers a multitude of perspectives, befitting as Geylang is not just about the prostitutes. It’s a bustling and thriving community of people, driven by the desire to survive and make ends meet, and this multitude of perspectives is conveyed through the different characters and stories entwined throughout the entire film.
A personal qualm is that the movie comes across as rather disjointed at times. Midway through the movie, for instance, Uekrongtham inserted two excerpts of interviews he did with real people who work in Geylang via a documentary style footage. This sticks out of the running narrative like a sore thumb, There does not appear to be any clear motivation surrounding for doing so, and neither did it run in congruence with the rest of the film. It is, however, tempting to postulate that this is because of the need to pander to international audiences, and to bring them further into Geylang as a community.
Finally, the open-ended narrative style adopted runs the risk of viewers failing to develop any sense of emotional attachment with the characters. Rather, the viewer is the aloof onlooker that judges and criticizes without any feeling or empathy. This is a pity as emotional engagement is important to relate to the characters in any film. At the end of the day, Pleasure Factory may come across as being too vague and aloof, stylistically brilliant but lacking a certain innate oomph.
Tan, V. (2007, May 27). Channel NewsAsia: Singapore film on Geylang sex workers debuts to full house at Cannes. Retrieved on December 2, 2010, from: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/entertainment/view/278745/1/.html