Director: Herman Yau
Cast: Charlene Choi, Simon Yam, Tony Ho, Paulyn Sun, Mimi Kung, Lam Chiu-Wing, Ryan Lau
Runtime: 1 hr 34 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures and Clover Films
Opening Day: 26 March 2015
Synopsis: Journalist Sara has just spent four months completing an in-depth investigation piece. Her editor-in-chief, afraid of offending powerful politicians and business moguls, refuses to run it. Sara’s boyfriend, who works for the same magazine, chooses not to warn her and even sides with the editor-in-chief. In just one moment, Sara is turned off by her work, her love relationship and even about life. At this low point in her life, Sara exiles herself to Chiang Mai, Thailand. One evening, while at a bar, Sara meets child prostitute Dok-my. During her time getting to know Dok-my and through the process of rescuing her, Sara becomes haunted by the memories of her own past.
If you’ve taken notice of ‘Sara’, it’s likely because of the fact that it has been billed as Charlene Choi’s most daring performance yet – and to give the former Twin credit, it is her most fascinating one yet. Playing the titular character that spans her teenage years to her early 30s as an investigative journalist, Choi abandons all vanity in an honest and sincere portrayal that embraces wholeheartedly Sara’s emotional and psychological vulnerabilities. And yes, she does have a couple of intimate scenes with her co-star Simon Yam – but we might as well advise those hoping to see her topless or fully nude to check those expectations at the door, because while candid, they were never meant to be exploitative.
At its core, ‘Sara’ is a coming-of-age story more than an examination of the Thai sex industry, despite some marketing hype about it being an expose on the latter. Indeed, there are two parallel narratives in Erica Li’s screenplay, but no matter what her intentions may have been at the start, Sara’s sojourn to the seedy underbelly of the Land of Smiles is but superficial unless seen in the context of her own teenage years. Appropriately then, the film opens with her sexual abuse as a 14-year-old at the hands of her stepfather (Tony Ho Wah-chiu), which her equally despicable mother (Pauline Suen) keeps quiet about because she feels a misplaced sense of indebtedness for having taken her in.
Fast-forward to present day, and Sara is now a plucky journalist who goes undercover as a hostess at a nightclub to expose on the collusion between government officials and real estate magnates. Her article provides too incendiary, and her editor yanks it. Feeling betrayed that her boyfriend (Ryan Lau) kept her in the dark about the editorial decision not to publish her piece, Sara leaves abruptly for a sojourn to Chiang Mai. It is in one of the pubs that Sara meets Angela (Sunadcha Tadrabiab), whom she pays a night for in order to bail her out from spending it with lecherous ‘white men’ (known as ‘falangs’) looking for quick one night stands. Sara takes a personal interest to Dok-my’s story, which is meant to illuminate the plight of young girls taken from their villages and forced to sell themselves for money.
Frankly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – many human rights organisations and international news media have consistently tried to draw attention to Thailand’s sex trade, and ‘Sara’ adds nothing particularly insightful or poignant. What it does however is to illustrate the parallels with its protagonist’s own struggles as a teenager who ran away from home and turned to petty crime on the streets in order to make ends meet. In the same way that Dok-my trades her body in exchange for a better life, so does Sara in the form of an ultimately destructive relationship with the mild-mannered Kam Ho-yin (Simon Yam).
In exchange for getting her into a Band I school (which is Hong Kong-speak for a renowned private school), Sara offers to have sex with the middle-aged education Government official, who is later revealed to not just be keen to keep up the image of a faithful husband at home but also a devoted Christian. The contradictions would be apparent to anyone, but Ho-yin’s motivations are intentionally kept obscure as he goes out of his way to look after Sara, including paying her rent for an apartment and giving her an allowance. But as you’d probably imagine, their relationship is hardly straightforward – and so, while Ho-yin gets jealous when he spies her journalism school classmate acting fondly towards Sara, he has no qualms trying to keep her hidden from the rest of his life as far as possible. Without any spoilers, it suffices to say that it doesn’t end well, as one iteration of the poster which sees Charlene Choi lying in a pool of red should be clear a hint as any.
And yet, the fact that we appreciate the emotions between Sara and Ho-yin is to director Herman Yau’s credit. While other directors may be tempted to judge or sensationalise their unconventional affair, Yau treads an impressively objective line in depicting their relationship, such that we do not condemn Ho-yin for clearly crossing a moral line nor be devoid of sympathy when Sara realises that she has fallen in love with him. Li’s screenplay doesn’t shy away from the ethical conundrums of their relationship; instead, she and Yau keep the character dynamic between Sara and Ho-yin real and believable, trusting their audiences’ intelligence to draw their own conclusions if they are so minded to.
Apart from being one of its most prolific filmmakers, Yau is also one of Hong Kong cinema’s most socially conscious creative talents, and that same sensibility has enabled him to coax a perfectly naturalistic performance from Choi. With Yau’s firm direction, she doesn’t overplay the melodramatic moments in the movie, nor short-change her audience when she needs to summon the emotional intensity for her character. Of course, Choi has an excellent foil in Yam, whose subtle low-key acting is just what the script and his character’s connection with Sara needs. As an actor, Yam is also ever gracious, letting Choi take the spotlight by underplaying Ho-yin’s presence in their scenes together.
Thankfully, Choi does not disappoint, and those who have been fans of hers since her Twins days can attest to how far she has come as an actress. ‘Sara’ is by no means a perfect film, but it is one of the bolder and thematically challenging films to come out of Hong Kong in recent years, and Choi’s commitment to her titular role makes it even more compelling. Just as surprising is the fact that funnyman Chapman To is its producer, but from the looks of this serious-minded and well-intentioned drama, his sensibilities are in the right place.
(Charlene Choi sheds all vanity in a daring, committed, and untamed performance that anchors an otherwise uneven but compelling film that is a surprisingly better character study than social drama)
Review by Gabriel Chong