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Whispers and Moans
Chinese: 性工作者十日談

(top) Whispers and Moans theatrical poster, (second from top) Athena Chu takes a swim, (second from bottom) Mandy Chiang checks in via her mobile, and (bottom) Monie Tung gets a talking to from mama-san Candy Yu.

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

Year: 2007
Director: Herman Yau Lai-To
Producer: Ng Kin-Hung
Writer: Yang Yee-Shan, Herman Yau Lai-To
Cast: Athena Chu Yan, s Candace Yu On-On, Mandy Chiang Nga-Man, Yan Ng Yat-Yin, Monie Tung Man-Lei, Misia Chan Mei-Hei, Don Li Yat-Long, Patrick Tang Kin-Won, Ken Lo Wai-Kwong, Karen Tong Bo-Yu, Bonnie Wong Man-Wai, Kenny Wong Tak-Bun, Emotion Cheung Kam-Ching
The Skinny: Herman Yau's look at the Hong Kong sex trade is interesting but cursory, and when it tries to make a point it becomes didactic. Whispers and Moans has the tools to be a successful social drama, but it ultimately lacks the power to follow through. A worthwhile attempt that will undoubtedly frustrate audiences looking for tawdry Category III thrills.

by Kozo:

Herman Yau attempts a social message with the prostitute drama Whispers and Moans. Based on a book of interviews by Yang Yee-Shan (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Whispers details a cross-section of sex industry workers in modern Hong Kong, all facing difficult change in the rapidly evolving sex trade. Chief among them is Coco (Athena Chu), a veteran mama-san, or a supervisor in a hostess club whose girls engage in a higher-regarded form of prostitution than your Temple Street-treading streetwalkers. Coco handles the girls' club assignments and eventual "take out" orders. While tawdry sounding, this is supposedly the higher end of the sex trade, though you wouldn't know it from the way the girls get treated. Work is hell, and these girls do quite a bit of work.

The hostess club where Coco and fellow mama-san Jenny (Candy Yu) work is in danger of closing, meanwhile the girls working for them have a variety of personal and professional issues to deal with. Nana (Mandy Chiang) is a dour prostitute with a loving boyfriend who has no idea what she does for a living. Meanwhile, Nana's sister Aida (Monie Tung) is a heroin addict, which destroys her cred at the club, leading to her eventual fall to drug-addled streetwalker. Coco has her own problems; both of her sugardaddies seem to be straying, plus she may have contracted syphilis from one of them, possibly putting her young daughter at risk, too. All this plus your standard work hazards, e.g. lousy customers, lost opportunities, etc.

Whispers and Moans is an ensemble piece, crisscrossing between its various interrelated players, each weathering the challenges of being a whore in today's Hong Kong. Aside from human relationship and job hazard issues, the girls must deal with the influx of Mainland prostitutes, who generally are cheaper and approach the job with much more enthusiasm than the cynical Hong Kong locals. The male sex workers have issues too; Tony (Patrick Tang) is a successful, but self-loathing gigolo who takes out his frustration by buying the time of his female colleagues and berating them verbally. He's in a loving relationship with Jo (Don Li), a transvestite prostitute who's saving up for a proper sex change operation, and may have stolen one of Coco's boyfriends.

Jo has the potential to be portrayed as a cartoon, especially given the disbelief that must be suspended to buy into Don Li's performance. However, staying real is one of Herman Yau's strengths. Yau doesn't sensationalize or overdramatize his subjects - at least from a directorial standpoint. Yau may not use manufactured style to sell his material, but the material itself is a little too rough to be easily digestible. Yan Ng plays Elsie, a crusading social worker who's trying to get the girls to buy into a new "Sex Workers Union", the benefit being they can develop pride in their work, and fight for more recognition from the public. Elsie gets to deliver numerous speeches on her crusade, which become didactic in their long-winded optimism.

Yan plays the character with less-than-obvious self-assurance, however, meaning the other characters can jump all over her - which they do. Much of her talk of paying tribute to Hong Kong's tireless sex workers gets rebuked, frequently by the workers themselves, who either become annoyed at her idealism, or simply talk about how they have other motives for being prostitutes. That opens up the film for, unfortunately, even more long-winded speeches where characters go on and on about how they love being prostitutes, or are pissed that others take their jobs, or how they never intended for their lives to end up this way, etc., etc. There's an appreciable honesty to the situations, but not everything is introduced organically. The situations speak volumes, but the characters speak even more; sometimes, all the audience can do is listen patiently. After a while, your ears might get tired.

Yau's attempt at thoughtful filmmaking partially redeems Whispers and Moans, which has the tools to be a dark, relevant social drama. It certainly sets up all the situations, and gives the actors enough to work with. Unfortunately, something about the film seems lacking. The weight of these sex workers' lives seems obvious and real, but the situations aren't capitalized upon, and when the sadness-tinged final moments arrive, the film doesn't seem to affect as much as it could have. The situations are potent, but the characters feel more like mouthpieces, and not enough is felt when some of them meet their fates. Whispers and Moans lacks a power or rawness that would convince us that its "sex workers need respect" message is strong enough to carry the whole film. The film feels real, but it lacks immediacy.

However, the film does succeed at sustaining interest, as the details can certainly affect or even enlighten. The actors vary in effectiveness, with some players (especially Athena Chu and Candy Yu) lending veteran presence, and others managing decent supporting turns. The weak link is Mandy Chiang, whose inner emotions seem more inert than tortured. As is usual with a Herman Yau production, the performances are more natural than they are constructed, and the rough edges manage to lend an air of spontaneous authenticity. That is, until the personal speeches start going on far too long, which is when the film loses the reality its created. Filmmakers need to seduce an audience into buying in to get them to pay attention to soul-searching monologues or sociopolitical pulpit pounding. Whispers and Moans certainly does interest, but does it seduce? Not really.

Whispers and Moans may also frustrate those enticed by its Category III rating. The rating is earned thanks to its frank discussion of adult subject matter - though the application of said rating is most definitely a local rather than an international standard. Filmgoers should think twice if they think Whispers and Moans will be the second coming of PR Girls. Nobody flashes a breast here and the most titillating image of Athena Chu is when she's wearing a bikini right before she pisses in the pool, possibly infecting someone with syphilis. If that sounds titillating to you, then we suggest that you don't share that feeling with others. From likely a more common standpoint, it's not titillating at all, and neither is the whole of Whispers and Moans. This is the type of film where drug use and sleeping with the wrong customers can lead to bad, bad times, and prostitution is a real matter and not some idealized fantasy. Basically, if you're looking for tawdry thrills, check out real adult movies and not this questionably successful, but well-intentioned Hong Kong film. (Kozo 2007)
 Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen