Hong Kong cinema has a style and prestige all its own, but unless you’re a big cinema fan or from the region, you probably aren’t all that familiar with it. As a thriving and relatively well-liked film industry, it also acts as an experimental field for film makers to tackle lots of different issues, especially modern ones plaguing the world they see around them. This film deals with a subject that’s not just familiar to a Chinese audience but a global one — the online sex trade.
Let’s take a look at Girl$.
A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment.
Girl$ deals with a very different reality than that dealt with in the HBO show of the same name (the one spelled without the dollar sign) in that it doesn’t make you want to punch the protagonists in the face so much as steer them the Hell away from their decisions. The film follows Icy, who is a “procuress” (which I’m pretty sure is the nice way of saying pimp) and helps three girls make money via online sexual hookups. Lin, the experienced one; Ronnie, the rich shy one who pays the men she sleeps with so she can’t technically be a prostitute; and Gucci, the virgin who needs to make money to support her desire for designer products. As always happens, the four become friends and deal with the typical issues faced by online sex workers: HIV scares, jealous boyfriend, psychotic killers, and finding out your brother is trying to (unknowingly) buy your virginity.
Before anyone pulls out the torches and starts an angry mob about how this movie is glamorizing prostitution (that was actually my number one fear about the film), let me start off saying this film is supposed to make you uncomfortable. In fact it is that whole juxtaposition where you have scenes of the girls just being girls to them being forced into dangerous and damaging situations that makes the film so powerful. It doesn’t make prostitution seem like a fun but it does humanize the women involved.
Often in movies, TV shows, video games, and other media we see prostitute as bodies to be used like objects rather than treated like people. They are often treated like scum, the lowest of the lowest whose lives are inconsequential. This film not only makes these women human, but also makes them likable, even familiar, like they could be your friends or family. These are not the poorly dressed, poorly groomed caricatures we’re used to but honest to God people. Kudos to director Kenneth Bi for that.
One of my issues with the film is more of a stylistic choice than anything the movie does “wrong” outright. I don’t love the use of “crap cam” or rather a camera whose quality is low enough to make it look like a home video. This is supposed to add a layer of realism to the film, making it feel like more of a honest, realistic piece but it personally bothers me. Is it such low quality it’s unwatchable? No. Imagine it’s like a really well made student film that’s shot on a film department’s camera. Bi really knows how to use lighting, color, and exposure to get you to empathize with the characters. If there’s one thing I can say, it is definitely that you feel like you’re watching from the outside in on a world full of loneliness and it works.
Personally speaking, the killer aspect of the film seems to come the most out of nowhere, and is one of the parts I am least interested in, since it is set up all around the dynamic between these four women. Not sure if this was added in for drama or to show the inherent dangers of the prostitution business but it could have worked without it. It just makes for weird tonal shifts, though to be honest so does the “my brother is the guy trying to buy my virginity” scene.
The characters themselves feel whole — they are not meant just to be walking sympathy machines or paper dolls that lay flat during the more intimate scenes. I honestly didn’t dislike any of them, which is weird because I usually dislike someone in a quartet of characters, but it’s probably they are written like people, and are portrayed by actress who give each character depth. They don’t do weird things for the sake of quirkiness, they do it because it is a logical, rational process to them.
That’s why this Girl$ is better than the American Girls, even if we are in a society that teaches us to value one over the other. In the HBO show, the girls are vapid, oblivious tools who treat others with selfishness and cruelty, and can be easily written off as the “too cool for you” one, the neurotic one, the filter-less princess, and the self conscious loner. In this film, they can not be so easily written off, they provide performances that are haunting and realistic, and that’s why it works.
Ultimately, Girl$ is an excellent portrayal of women who partake in “the oldest profession” and does so in a way that doesn’t demean or objectify them. Sure, some people are going to watch it solely for the sexy parts but the fact is the story will suck those people in anyways. I would highly recommend watching this movie, if only because it’ll pull you down deep not into a seedy underworld but into the lives of realistic characters who will leave you in awe.
– Excellent depiction of sex workers as people.
– Excellent use of lighting, color and staging.
– Strong acting from the cast.
– Strong writing.
– Some of the cinematography feels a little “film school-esque.”
– Killer subplot seems a bit weak and comes out of nowhere.