The Category III trend in 90s Hong Kong cinema is mostly recognized as being kickstarted with true life serial killer stories such as Dr.Lamb but the turn of the century started to provide the scene with successful period erotica (Sex And Zen, Erotic Ghost Story etc) and certainly the hostess dramas such as Girls Without Tomorrow, Call Girl 92 were mainstream without playing up the adults only factor. Here's where a movie like Escape From Brothel comes in, with downbeat, unfair fury from Shaw Brothers baddie turned brutally violent director Johnny Wang. In fact Escape From Brothel represented his last piece of celluloid boxing match with his viewers after a solid string of actioners including Hong Kong Godfather, City Warriors and the Jackie Chan Stunt Team directed Angry Ranger. Writer Jamie Luk dipped his toe into the commercial appeal of Amy Yip in his 1991 movie Robotrix and trying out the thoroughly heinous, somewhat goofy and dark template for struggling female prostitutes here, Escape From Brothel, especially uncut (1*), resonates mostly through extremely colorful, violent imagery. As well as evoking feelings of sadness for Pauline Chan's Hung and the late actress mostly unutilized potential.
Hung (Chan) works as a prostitute along with friend Ann (Rena Murakami - Sex And Zen) out of a small apartment. Plans when going from the Mainland to Hong Kong were different for Ann though who married a man who sold her to pay off his debt. Missing gymnast Sam (Alex Fong) who's struggling with an injury back home, he takes the chance to get to Hong Kong when a couple of his buddies are asked to assist a businessman whose in fact hiring them to rob his own store for the insurance money. The robbery goes horribly wrong with Sam being the only survivor and seeking out Hung makes them both and their environments targets of Billy (Billy Chow), one of the businessman's triad connections...
There's a sadness in Pauline's resigned face that can hit a viewer right in the heart and it's an astonishing effect achieved by director Wang already at the opening credits stage made in stylish- and montage-form. It seems an escape from brothel is desired but probably isn't going to happen because this is a face that's also not seeing a fate other than this... or death. As gorgeous as Chan is as we do see her nude here and during the film, little of Escape From Brothel sticks out as sexy, which is by design. It's felt and heartfelt and while sex does play a part of this, the lingering effect is shock rather than titillation.
A few detours does seem to occur, even into comedy as one of the glimpses into life of a prostitute we see is the Mama-san scamming Stuart Ong's characters claiming she's offering up an air stewardess and a secretary for big money. Then stuck with a client who wants to practice ancient sexual positions, it all ends on a freeze frame and while the goofy Ong here does turn up for forced baseball bat penetration later on, it's merely an episode as is the pervert in the shower scene in the film too.
But mostly Johnny Wang stays focused as the plight of Hung sinks in. Having left the Mainland for factory work as she lies to Sam in her letters, much of what Hung goes through is surely true however and Wang doesn't evoke the feeling of exploiting something real for entertainment because entertaining it ain't... unless you make a moment or two in your existence a bit more fun (such as when the girls try to hide Sam from the Mama-san in their apartment) despite having gone on a dark path for some time. Usually there is a good snap to Wang's direction and the movie being bathed in strong colours of red, pink and blue is evocative visually. Snapping easily into action and violence as well, one of the most famous scenes from Escape From Brothel involves Billy Chow fighting a nude Sophia Crawford but otherwise Wang brings a trademark hard and gritty feel to the action. Especially as he moves on and the violence becomes increasingly animalistic with innocents getting into the way of guns and knives.
The finale is a reference point for Escape From Brothel, demonstrating the effects that lingers. Obviously having to do with everything downbeat and dark as well as sexy, well-lit and performed (more so for Pauline Chan than her melodramatic counterpart in Alex Fong). It's an episode for a few out of many characters of the same status and fate in real life and since Johnny merely highlights and comments a bit, the movie is more about the admiration for crafting an extreme piece of cinema. As with a character's demise late in the film, at times Escape From Brothel really does feel like multiple stabs in your stomach and that's a praise-worthy thing.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) The film was both cut with the Category III rating as presented by Ocean Shores on home video in Hong Kong and even more severely so by UK censors (6 minutes and 38 seconds according to the BBFC) but the Dutch released VHS presents the movie in the longest version which includes a few snippets of electrical torture and gory violence (Alex Fong beating Billy Chow's head to a pulp with a rock towards the end for instance).