Sara (Chor gei)
Hong Kong (2015) Dir. Herman Yau
Money is the proverbial root of all evil but there is a very strong case to be made for sex to be considered an equally destructive force, though the two usually cause havoc when working in tandem with each other. Sometimes it is easy to forget the many ways these two evils intertwine, especially for something that is supposed to equate to pleasure.
Ho Yuk Ling aka Sara Ho (Charlene Choi) is an investigative journalist working undercover at the top bars in Hong Kong for a story exposing corruption between business and politics as played out in boardrooms overflowing with booze and babes. When the story is due to be published, Sara’s editor is forced to pull it on the orders of many advertisers who would be directly affected by this expose.
In a fit of anger, Sara makes a quick getaway to cool off to Chiang Mai, Thailand. At a bar one night, she meets a teenage prostitute Dok-My (Sunadcha Tadrabiab) and buys her for the evening to save her being used from a group of men. In getting Dok-My to open up and tell her story, Sara has flashbacks to her own life, a sadly sordid tale also revolving around sex as a ways to make ends meet.
Known primarily for his action thrillers and martial arts dramas, Herman Yau returns to a lesser covered theme of sex workers with Sara, though the true draw for many will be the casting of Charlene Choi in a major departure for her. As the quintessential angel of Hong Kong cinema, the former teen idol has always taken safe comedic or romantic roles, her evergreen looks enabling her to play way below her years.
Sara sees Choi go dramatically against type, drinking, smoking, cursing, and most drastic of all, being sexually active. Whilst there is some *safe* nudity, Choi is never fully naked but for her this is as revealing as she’ll ever be, along with the two *safe* but raunchy enough sex scenes – hardly likely to give anyone their jollies, but as this is chaste Choi doing the nasty here.
The lurid content includes a grim rape scene at the very start, set when Sara was a young teen, the perpetrator being her stepfather as her mother (Alien Sun) stands outside doing nothing. Eventually, Sara runs away from home, ending up on the streets with other homeless teens, turning tricks for money and food. At the harbour Sara meets middle-aged Kam Ho-yin (Simon Yam), starting a conversation which ends with Ho-yin offering to help Sara restart her education, and she pays him back in kind.
It should be pointed out that the script was written by a woman, Erica Lee, so this isn’t a film created for the male gaze and explains how the main women are both strong yet sympathetic victims of their sexuality. Ho-yin and Sara begin a sugar daddy relationship – the former actually an inspector in the education system, hence his getting Sara into a top school. But over the years, Sara focuses more on getting her college degree whilst Ho-yin just wants sex, causing friction between them.
Of the three main arcs, this one follows a definite path to an actual resolution, providing arguably the more compelling experience. There are many nuanced layers to this cod-Pygmalion storyline that could have been explored in depth had it been the central plot, though Yau and Lee give us enough that it certainly feels like the main story. Not to suggest the Dok-My arc is any less important. By giving Sara a chance to pay Ho-yin’s generosity forward in helping Dok-My escape a life in prostitution, it works and is cogent, but again, could also have easily been the film’s main plot.
Regarding the grim family home Sara fled, this bookends the film, its prolonged absence leaving so many holes in how it shapes Sara’s mindset and attitudes towards sex, men and other women. The leap from rape victim to Ho-yin’s eager other woman is a huge one and the narrative would have greatly benefited from explaining how Sara came to reconcile sex as a means to an end, rather than be repelled by it after her experiences.
Adult Sara is clearly more together and her experiences have made her the tough cookie she is, certainly in how dogged she pursues a story or cause, like Dok-My’s case. Sara’s personal story spans nearly two decades, with many time skips for expedience sake, though the random insertions of the flashbacks often confuse the flow, largely through Sara barely aging, only her hair length being an indicator that time has passed.
Since this was designed to be Charlene Choi’s step into age appropriate roles (she’s 36), having her playing young teen Sara was a bit of a credibility stretch not to mention puts Choi exactly where she was before. Thankfully, these scenes are brief and from late teens to adult, the path is lot smoother and the growth in the character is measured by the strength of Choi’s robust performance.
The always-reliable Simon Yam is an inspired choice as Ho-yin. Yam has a versatile look which can be avuncular and menacing, both aspects capably essayed here. His chemistry with Choi is natural and quite endearing at first, though by the end, we can see they are both as bad as each other for different reasons. Thai actress Sunadcha Tadrabiab does well in her small role but with all their scenes conducted in English, the exchanges are a little awkward at times.
With just 94-minutes to tell three complex if neatly intertwined stories, Herman Yau juggles the various balls well enough but a further 20 minutes might have made all the difference in resolving everything and solidifying the points of discussion. If people check out Sara purely for Charlene Choi getting raunchy, hopefully they’ll instead appreciate her wholly engaging performance, and give the relevant and contentious themes some thought in the process.