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Monday August 14, 2006

Inaugural Hong Kong sex workers' film festival offers nuanced, diverse portrait of trade


HONG KONG (AP) -_ A lonesome Taiwanese prostitute makes a futile stand against police entrapment. A proud Indian woman asks what's wrong with providing pleasure for a living. A Hong Kong organizer tirelessly visits sex workers and campaigns against alleged police abuse. 

The three-day inaugural Hong Kong Sex Worker's Film Festival that ended late Sunday offered a nuanced and diverse portrayal of prostitution in Asia. 

The festival featured an eclectic mix of nine movies and documentaries inconsistent in cinematic quality, some on a par with homemade videos. 

There was little Oscar-worthy drama or fancy camerawork, but the low-key filmmaking allowed the subjects to speak for themselves, and the subjects shone through. 

One of the most outstanding pieces featured in the festival was its kickoff movie, Taiwan's minimalist "Street Survivor'' (2006). 

The 21-minute short quietly follows the day of an independent prostitute who ends up briefly detained after soliciting a police source posing as a client. 

Much of the footage revolves around the sex worker, played by an actress, getting ready for work, meticulously applying makeup, putting on a wig, then removing her makeup after work.  

The scenes of solitude color the film with an elegant melancholy. 

But while "Street Survivor'' portrays the isolation and sadness of the profession, India's "Tales of the Night Fairies'' (2002) champions sex worker pride. 

Although set in the slums of Calcutta, the overall imagery isn't dark or grim. Director Shohini Ghosh interviews women unabashed about the nature of their work.  

One proudly declares to her daughter's school that she is the offspring of a sex worker.  

Another tells a forum there's nothing wrong with giving people pleasure. 

Ghosh also focuses on fun-filled gatherings organized by Indian sex workers that show them as anything but downtrodden and disenfranchised. 

By contrast, the prostitutes in the Taiwanese documentary, "The Story of the Taipei Licensed Prostitutes'' (1998) have mixed feelings. 

It's one of the most balanced films of the festival, filled with detailed interviews with a researcher, activists and officials. It doesn't shy away from the harsh economic realities that force Taiwanese women to turn to prostitution. 

Few sex workers show their faces. Many are covered in hats and handkerchiefs. 

While they don't hesitate to take to the streets to fight for their rights, there's also a lingering shame. 

The American portion of the festival's program was boosted by the delightful Carol Leigh, an activist credited with coining the term "sex worker.'' 

The buxom Leigh is bold and whimsical in the shorts that feature her as her alter ego, "Scarlot Harlot on Chum TV'' (2004) and "Scarlot Harlot's Interstate Solicitation Tour,'' in which she solicits customers on Wall Street in an act of civil disobedience. 

"Straight for the Money: Interviews with Queer Sex Workers'' (1994) tackles the lesser-discussed topic of homosexual prostitutes. 

It's a worthy effort by director B. Hima, but becomes tedious when it gets bogged down in details, such as how the sex workers maintain good hygiene. 

Ending the program on the home front, the festival wrapped with the Hong Kong film "Sisters and Zi Teng,'' about the sex worker support group Zi Teng, also the host of the festival. 

The nearly two-hour film by Kong King-chu is disjointed, mixing reenactments of prostitutes' encounters and actual footage of Zi Teng's activism.  

It's enlivened by spirited exchanges between sex workers and police officers. To an officer who asks her, "Why did such a good person like you become a prostitute?'' one prostitute retorts, "Why did such a good person like you become a police officer?'' 

The star of the movie is the diminutive but formidable Zi Teng organizer Elaine Lam. 

She's shown fighting back tears in the face of her mother's discomfort at her job, while at the same time tirelessly campaigning, knocking on doors of prostitutes, marching to protest alleged police misconduct and attending a sex workers' conference in Australia. 

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