If Amsterdam has her infamous fish tanks and Bangkok has her Patpong, I'm sure there must be something fascinating enough for Singapore's own red light district Geylang to be used as the backdrop, and its nighttime inhabitants becoming characters featured in a feature length film. After all, Bugis Street of old (not the sterile shopping mall it has now become) had been made in a 1996 Singapore movie entitled Bugis Street. But what came across as inspired from true stories that originates from within that area leaves much to be desired. After all, surely we know of some of these stories if we have friends who have visited the area (*ahem* if not yourself) and lived to tell of their conquests, or countless others that you can read of anonymously, courtesy of the Sammyboy forums, and those are somewhat more honest and to the point that what Pleasure Factory depicted.
For the uninitiated (as if I'm an expert), Geylang is situated just outside the boundary of the city center, to the east. It's split into even and odd Lorongs (akin to streets). The odd Lorongs are where the gourmet food are, some swearing by the fritters, bean curd and frog legs porridge (urban legend that it provides you "strength"), while the even Lorongs are where the pleasure factories are, though of course these days you have streetwalkers not confining themselves to the logical geographic boundaries anymore. And like any movie that's set in Singapore, you just can't resist having to cue in montage of life in the area set to an oldie music - here scenes of Geylang from both Lorongs, the fruit shops, coffee shop eateries, various hotels and the likes get set to Give Me A Kiss.
According to Pleasure Factory, Geylang was once an area where factories process coconuts, but now have given way to brothels providing pleasure, with pimps eager to hawk their latest acquisitions to anyone loitering a little while longer. Perhaps it's like Vegas, where what happens in Geylang stays in Geylang, that the characters here all have a propensity of not speaking. I would have no issues on this if the visuals, which paint a kaleidoscope of beautiful imagery showcasing the lure of the bright lights and the seedier side of what dwells amongst the shadows, can maintain a movie on its own before starting to look like Discovery Channel, but too often the narrative found itself caught up in the moment with its characters, in obvious short stories forced together through casual circumstances.
The three stories here were actually like snapshots, everything given on the surface, and without much depth. The first story is the perennial army boy seeking to pop his cherry, and what better way to do so than with someone of experience. Loo Zihan (who co-directed and was one of the leads in Solos) stars as the Jonathan the army boy who while at first seemed shy and unwilling, on the goading of a friend Kiat (Katashi Chen), managed to decide on the services of a bosomy girl from China, Xue Er. I thought this story was the best amongst the three, in that it had clear direction in what it wanted to get at, interjected with good humour. It also painted the motivations of all the characters clearly, highlighting the play acting and masks that people wear, whether we really know the deep dark secret desires that others have in mind, and dalliances on love, lust, and of course, the virgin experience.
Unfortnately, that cannot be said of the story involving the veterans Ananda Everingham and Yang Kuei-Mei, who's a regular in Tsai Ming-liang movies, that Pleasure Factory tries hard to emulate its minimalistic and reliance on visual language, with dismal results. People hardly talk here, and the visuals relied a fair bit on the unsteadicam as it weaves about and around the corridors of a budget hotel. While Yang's Linda and Isabella Chan's teenage girl has a mother-daughter love-hate relationship suggested, it was Ananda's Chris that proved to be the story arc's undoing, given that his character had no clear motivation at all. He just appears, hesitates, feels sorry, and that's it, finding it hard to communicate to the duo given that he speaks only English.
And it's not the characters alone that have unclear objectives and motivations. The movie too was disjointed in itself, having succumbed to schizophrenic moments where it inserted two documentary styled interview footage into the narrative structure, thus having those sticking out like a sore thumb. While much of the narrative is fictional in nature, I thought that it may have felt a need to have a mockumentary(?) mouthpiece to provide us some candid answers, albeit for a short while only.
The remaining story arc puts the spotlight on a pleasure giver, a hot girl in a red dress (played by Jeszlene Zhou), the regular plaything of a old, pudgy man driving a sports car, who while jaded with satisfying the lusty old man, as a person she too yearns the desire for love / lust being satisfied. I thought this was a more of a conventional treatment of Herman Yau's Whispers and Moans in its specific tit-for-tat moment, but it does open one's eyes to having to resort to innovative methods to solicit, and cements the term "Special" being used in the trade. Like Whispers and Moans too, Pleasure Factory does not cast a judgemental eye on the service providers, and while the former highlighted the plight the workers faced, this one provides a more general outlook in terms of themes covered.
Shot on location, I thought the DP did a good job in tackling the multitude of people who would have spoiled the movie by looking straight at the camera in curiosity. You can't really close Geylang for the shoot, can you, and watching how skillfully the camera was manipulated to show how bustling it is, and yet avoid common pitfalls, was a job well done. However, with it being set in one area in one single night, I felt that the stories it selected could have been more engaging, rather than having the prevailing sense of aloofness. Then again, perhaps that's what it's all about with its open ended narratives, in mirroring the artificial feelings between the inhabitants, between the server and those being served. You don't really, and there's no need, in getting too emotionally attached to one another.
Similar to Lust, Caution, Pleasure Factory also had its directed coming out with an abridged version, though here it was done so that it could still be released with an R21 rating. I believe a certain scene shortened definitely would be the homoerotic one, or the one with male genitalia shown, though I guess we'll wait for this weekend to clarify this when the press conference is held.
In circumstances where you tell the pimp your fantasies and get them fulfilled somewhat, Pleasure Factory did not manage to do just that. You have a basic idea what you want to get at. and while it's packaged very nicely on the outside, the skills for pleasuring the senses dispensed unfortunately didn't provide for a satisfying time. But this is Geylang after all. Fans will undoubtedly have no hesitation to see how their playground gets depicted in a feature length film, while those curious enough or have never stepped foot into its territory, would probably prefer to see it through a filmmaker's lens first.