Profiles of Pleasure
Reviewed by James Chang
What can I say? After Director Li Han Hsiang*
returned to HK in 1971, it seemed that every type of brothel from the old
days was rediscovered and brought to the cinema screen. From Beijing to
Shanghai, from Tien Tsin to Canton, the prostitutes in HK were considered
to be the most desirable. To many of the HK directors, prostitution was
considered to be part of the "glorious" past of this colony and worthy
of praise long before the era of Suzie Wong .
If you are not a moralist or a feminist, you can
at least watch it for the simple pleasures it offers. After all, it is
quite enjoyable to see many very lovely ladies walking about, adorned in
fancy clothing and doing all they can to catch some man’s attention. Though
there is no real plot, you won't get bored, as everything is thrown into
a giant pot and served in the form of potpourri. There are many ladies
competing for sugar daddies and occasionally trying to kill themselves
in dramatic fashion after being abandoned. This film, that takes place
in the 1930’s, also presents a feminist movement that wants to shut the
brothels down. Besides the lovely visuals, there are many songs and Cantonese
operas to hear and watch. But if you're asking for a solid plot and a sense
of refined taste, this is definitely not your cup of tea and you may even
find it annoying.
The story starts with the British government’s
plan to ban prostitution in Shek Tong Tsui (Tong Sai), Hong Kong. Adam
Cheng, a commissioner educated in London, is sent to investigate this issue.
After arriving with his westernized fiancée, Carina Lau, he goes
to Tong Sai to have a 'thorough investigation’ and ends up being personally
involved with two of the courtesans, Nina Li and Rosamund Kwan. This is
the story of how an anti-prostitution commissioner gets pulled into the
world of high-class brothels and the fascinating creatures within. The
story ends when brothels were turned into cabarets**, and Adam finally
has to resolve his relationships with three of the most beautiful ladies
in the world. " Men are teapots and women are cups, one single teapot is
usually matched with a couple of cups " was his philosophy of life.
Basically, the entire film is sheer nonsense,
however, people like myself (mainly guys) could easily find watching this
nonsense amusing. Three of the most beautiful Hong Kong actresses of the
eighties are brought together on the same screen. Carina's performance
did not persuade me that she came from London with a university degree.
Besides, I don't think Chinese in the thirties were likely to be so open-minded
about having sex before marriage (it appears that Adam is intimate with
Carina in the film).
On the other hand, all the 'prostitutes' in this
film have very distinct personalities. Rosamund Kwan does a brilliant job
portraying a sophisticated prostitute from Shanghai, who is confident,
fashionable, witty and not without a sense of humor. Nina Li also shines
as she plays a corny yet voluptuous local Cantonese*** girl whose beauty
tends towards the gaudy side. In fact, her role is probably the most dramatic
one - as she discovers that she was engaged to Adam prior to her birth
****. As it is, she has already been married four times, but she had jinxed
all four of them to death (actually, we shouldn't be that superstitious,
it is hinted that these “poor” guys died from exhaustion after making love
with her all day long!). Nevertheless, countless dandies continue to “fearlessly”
pursue her. I find the scene in which she shampoos herself and converses
with Adam Cheng particularly sensual. Other scenes such as Nina Li dancing
on a table, Rosamund drinking tens of glasses of Champagne to save face,
Nina Li teasing poor dead Alfred Cheung (who was yet another victim of
her prowess in bed) was also a pleasure to watch.
Pauline Wong's performance as the owner of the
brothel was also exceptionally fine and Adam Cheng, besides being handsome,
has successfully depicted the personality of a dandy. Compared with these
actors, those in the late 1990’s are merely good-looking statues and dolls.
I know it is strange but their appearance and performance simply doesn’t
shine, not to say radiate. I think what the modern day actors really lack
is natural charm.
However, the performance from sci-fi writer, Ngai
Hong (Ni Kuang), the old fellow who played the long-time patron of the
brothel was simply terrible. Still, he was definitely much better than
Pai Yun Chin, who plays the feminist leader. I really wish we could one
day have a Peter Ustinov or Charles Laughton in Hong Kong. Also appearing
are Paul Chun Pui, Wong Jing and Lawrence Cheng
As director Tony Au was once an art director,
he has always tried his best in designing the set for his works. One major
attraction of this film besides the attractive women are the sets and costumes,
however, they are not authentic if we compare them with photographs of
the thirties. Besides, for me, the production design was a bit too gaudy.
The songs and extracts from Cantonese Operas, composed and rewritten by
Dr. Law Wing-Fai , professor of the HK Academy of Performing Arts and sung
by Kam Kwok Wai, a celebrated Cantonese Opera star ,were pleasures to hear.
Basically, Profiles of Pleasures is pleasing to
both eyes and ears, no matter how ridiculous and debauched its plot is.
Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1987) was a typical
example of glorifying this oldest profession in the world, and the director
of this film, Tony Au, was attempting to follow in his footsteps by creating
a luxurious paradise for dandies and other lustful bastards and indulging
in even more debaucheries. Compared to Rouge though, it is far less dramatic
and ravishing. Overall, it is just a soap opera.
* Li Han Hsiang (1926-1996), a major filmmaker
throughout the 50s to 70s, was the father of today’s HK commercial films.
When one is watching the God of Gamblers (1989), or a Ching costume drama,
or a Cat III film, don't forget that it was Li Han Hsiang who first brought
such type of materials onto the silver screens in the 70s.He was also the
man who discovered Michael Hui in 1972 and cast him in the Warlord (1972),
thereby catapulting him to regional super stardom. Later on, in the 80s,
Li primarily worked in the mainland, making costume epics where he first
discovered Tony Leung Ka Fai in 1982. As a director, Li has the ability
to combine vulgarity and elegance in a film, and as a scholar, he was extremely
meticulous when dealing with historical details in his films. This ability
plus the ability to discover stars make him different from Wong Jing. By
the way, Gong Li also first appeared in a Li Han Hsiang vehicle playing
a supportive role.
** On June 30th 1935, the British banned
prostitution in Hong Kong
*** This is ironic, since it was Nina Li
who came from Shanghai in real life. Rosamund Kwan whose origin was from
Mukden, was educated in Hong Kong and the USA.
**** This is a Chinese custom that
was abandoned after 1919. In the old days, a pair of good friends could
make such an arrangement - if both of them had children of opposite sex
at the same time, their children would marry each other in the future.
If you find watching beautiful Chinese ladies
a pleasure, rating = 7.5
If you are a decent, honest and conservative
person, rating = 5.5
If you are a right-wing moralist, rating =
If you are a feminist, DO NOT go for this
film. It can be OUTRAGEOUS.