Escape from Brothel (1992)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-05-18
While the version I watched of “Escape from Brothel” had been cut in accordance with the dictates of a national censor or a soft-core cable time slot I don’t think I missed very much. It is a bathetic story of innocence corrupted, good deeds punished and evil triumphant. It is also a cautionary tale on several levels: don’t trust your friends who want you to accompany them on an illegal trip to Hong Kong from the PRC in order to get rich quick; don’t assume that three country boys newly arrived from the mainland will be able to carry out an armed robbery that requires split second timing and complex planning; don’t give your girlfriend a hard time when you discover she is a prostitute when you are on the lam for capital murder and need her to hide you; don’t trust criminals who offer to help you and also are willing to be paid over time.

There is a very funny scene in which Hung sneaks Sam into the bathroom past Suzie, then has to hide him by sitting on him while he is sitting on the toilet when Mama barges in. Other than that “Escape from Brothel” is a grim procession of venal, corrupt, wicked and altogether loathsome people, relieved only by Ann and Hung, the two prostitutes. Suzie the madam (referred to in the subtitles as “Mama” in this version) is a stock character which Pak Yan walks through without any trouble; veteran bad guy William Ho Ka-Kui is properly disgusting as the corrupt Inspector Chan who gets serviced gratis in exchange for protection; Tom and Ken, Sam’s mainland buddies are as dumb as posts but not as stupid as the father and son team who sign them up for the robbery. Sam is far from a heroic or even likeable character—the costuming department may as well have slapped a “victim’ sign on Alex Fong Chung-Sun. He not only failed at everything he did—when we first encounter him he is teaching at a backwater school after being tossed off the national gymnastics team—but everything he attempts makes an already bad situation worse.

The only sympathetic characters are Ann and Hung. Like many Hong Kong movies that foreground prostitution, “Escape from Brothel” makes no moral judgments regarding the women who use their only asset to support themselves. The life of a whore is neither glamorized nor demonized. It is shown as a tough, dangerous and potentially deadly business to which many women resort that allows them to make much more money than they would otherwise. Hung’s situation is not uncommon in Hong Kong films—she has been traded to a pimp by her husband in payment for a debt. We don’t know how she wound up in this particular two girl house, only that Mama (Suzie) saved her life at some point. Pauline Chan Bo-Lin gives a terrific performance in what is not a difficult role. Hung is making the best of a very bad lot, is horrified when Sam discovers that she isn’t a factory worker but is also determined to help him escape. The screenwriter gives her plenty of chances to cut her losses and give Sam up to the authorities but she never even considers them. She is a woman who is going to stand by her man until the very end, which she does.

Ann is an even more engaging character. She is abused more than Hung—actress Murakami Rena appears naked a lot more than Pauline Chan—including a particularly grisly punishment early on. She has no interest in helping to conceal Sam—it would be to her advantage to turn him in since a reward has been offered for his capture—other than her friendship with Hung. Based on her commitment to her friend she is willing to take risks, find a place with relatives for him to hide, and fight to the death with armed men. Ann is portrayed as the more worldly and street smart of the two, someone with a great deal of dignity and generosity of spirit.

Trying to figure out the objective of a filmmaker—or any artist—is treacherous at best and should generally be avoided. There is even a name in lit crit circles for attempting to do so, the “intentional fallacy”, so I won’t attempt to discern Johnny Wang Lung-Wei’s purpose in making “Escape from Brothel” in the way he did. But whatever his intention the movie he produced is full of despair and anomie with an emotional palette dominated by fear and hatred and real human communication all but impossible.

Recommended for those who like to see attractive actresses partially naked or for those who like their dramas unrelentingly grim.
Reviewer Score: 4