By Yijie Du
Titled Sara, or Child Prostitute, the Hong Kong film hints at both the underage prostitute Dok-my whose exploited life Sara vows to salvage in Thailand, and Sara herself, the domestic sexual abuse victim who trades sex for an education. They are but a tiny sliver of the diversity of sex workers in Asia.
Sara is in a similar vein to the sex worker series Whispers and Moans (2007) and True Women For Sale (2008) by Herman Yau, a prolific and socially conscious homegrown director. The provocative film grants a glimpse into the Land of Smiles where there are 2.8 million sex workers, including 800,000 child prostitutes. Otherwise, it reveals the palpable sex-for-sale business in the civilized and lawful metropolis of Hong Kong.
In a Hong Kong film era characteristic of triad, police and masculinity, a psychological thriller like Sara is a rare occurrence. The bolder and thematically challenging film digs deep into human nature from a female perspective. The underlying tone is realistic and somber despite its publicity stunts: the provocative line of Charlene Choi in the trailer (“I’ve been letting you f*** me,” the ghastly poster where naked Choi is bathed in blood, and the X-rated label. In Erica Li’s screenplay, each character has its own fate and struggle to be detested, celebrated, mourned and pitied.
The motivations of sex workers vary while the parallel narrative of Sara and Dok-my stands for their own: for a fortune or for a ‘dream’, voluntarily or compelled to.
One can trade virtue for ‘self-esteem’ but tragedy looms with an insatiable appetite. Sara craves for more in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—the need of love and belonging when the physiological and safety needs are satisfied by her mild-mannered sugar daddy Kam Hoyin (Simon Yam).
They run into each other when Sara has run away from home and turned to petty crime on the streets in order to make ends meet. Sara deliberately jumps at the bait of Kam even if he isn’t fishing directly for human prey.
A 14 year-old girl deprived of paternal love and virginity, Sara is rewarded food, shelter and security in an eight-year sexual relationship with her “Daddy Long-Legs.” Her dependence on Kam readily deepens into a psychological longing. But this twisted love only exists in the hidden corner away from the decent life of Kam, a gracious government official, a faithful husband at home and a devoted Christian.
Twice, Sara prefers an escape to a betrayal of herself—her body and her ego.
First, she runs away from home while losing virginity at the hand of her stepfather, after her weak mother acquiesces— “You might as well make the sacrifice to your stepfather so long as you would lose your virginity one day.” The disillusioned girl later sees through the goodwill of Kam and gains an advantage from it: she trades her body as leverage in social mobility—for a top-notch education.
Once an underprivileged gang member, Sara grows into a plucky journalist who goes undercover as a hostess at a nightclub to disclose the collusion between government officials and real estate tycoons. Her reversed identity is ironic.
The four-month investigative reporting proves too incendiary to be run and Sara is once more disillusioned when she realizes the reality is but a trade-off between the influential and the well-off.
She trades her physical body for spiritual independence. Still, she can’t re-write the long-established rule of the game as a muckraker—a shame on local journalism where freedom of speech is the cornerstone.
Deficiency turns into one’s ultimate desire. Sara is unsatisfied in achieving her dream as a writer—an aberrant trade-off at its core. Her way of redemption is to write for justice with a pen as a weapon. Discouraged by the thwarted ambition, she leaves for a sojourn to Chiang Mai to play the savior of Dok-my and, at the same time, of herself.
Child prostitutes like Dok-my are worth compassion for their simple motivation: a living for the whole family. The word ‘dream’ is luxury for these young sex contractors. In Thailand, sex tourism is such a mature industry that no-strings-attached is the unwritten rule.
Ultimately, Sara is still a step away from her salvage of Dok-my, or of herself as a “sex worker.”
The character of Kam Hoyin reveals a moral dilemma with his vice and virtue. The middle-aged education government official manages to maintain the face of a hypocrite. Stripped off his multiple identities, Kam is but one of the raft of sugar daddies in an ever-opportunistic society. It is also not unusual to witness an emerging credibility gap when he is upper the ladder in the government.
The sophisticated role of Kam is well delivered by Simon Yam, a seasoned local actor. Choi received best actress prize for Sara at December’s Macau International Movie Festival and was also nominated for best actress by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and the Hong Kong Film Awards. It is a daring bid to cast the 34-year-old from the sweetheart girl group ‘Twins’ as a real performer. The precocious personality of Sara may find an echo in Choi’s own inner strength upon her divorce . She has weak moments, for example the suicide scene, which appears overdone and unconvincing.
Sara is realistic in that Dok-my’s fate, or the life of servitude of 800,000 Thai child prostitutes, is left hanging in the balance, so is the moral conclusion of the unorthodox love affair between Sara and Kam.
In the finale, the camera pans slowly across the stationer’s shop where Sara’s nightmare and dream originate. The theme song, “Que Sera Sera”, gently flows, which echoes with the opening scene: “whatever will be, will be.”