Review: Herman Yau’s “Whispers and Moans”

Despite its rather misleading title, Herman Yau’s Whispers and Moans (2007) is no soft-core, exploitative extravaganza, but rather an un-romanticized depiction of the lives of several prostitutes who work out of a hostess club. The film’s sense of realism is due in large part to its source material, as it is based on Yeeshan Yang’s book of interviews with real-life sex workers. The business is constantly threatened by most of the other clubs moving to Shenzhen, China, and Mainland Chinese girls flooding the sex-trade market, leaving everyone in a financially and emotionally precarious state. Visual depictions of the sex act are almost completely elided in this film, to highlight the fact that everything is strictly business. One of the girls, who calls herself Happy (Misia Chan), prides herself on remaining clean and professional, and when that is compromised by one of her colleagues, she launches into an angry rant about all of the sacrifices she has put herself through for her profession.
Much of the material here is quite familiar from other films depicting the sex trade. In fact, there are some interesting comparisons to be made with another film, Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. However, while that film depicted a bright fantasy world filmed on a soundstage, Yau’s film strives for greater verisimilitude. Although there are many elements that could be easily played for melodrama – Nana (Mandy Chiang) hides her work from her boyfriend, Aida (Monie Tung) is a raging heroin addict who is soon reduced to plying her trade on the streets, Madame Coco (Athena Chu) is embroiled in successive romantic entanglements with different men – at every point this is undercut with a sense of world-weariness imparted by these women who have seen everything, and have gained experience well beyond their years.

Money is the lifeblood of this scenario, and the subject around which everything in this film revolves. Everyone needs it, tries to save it, loses it, gives it away, and everything is negotiable. The threat of disease hangs over it all, and the anxious time while waiting for the test results for syphilis or AIDS is the most agonizing occupational hazard. One man infected with syphilis causes extreme anxiety for two of his sex partners: Madame Coco, who at one point pulls her daughter out of daycare to get tested, afraid that she may have infected the girl with her tears; and Joey (Dan Li), his transsexual consort.

The large cast is quite good, and their conflicts are deftly woven into the fabric of this vibrant world. There is an admirable lack of moral judgment and exploitation, and everyone is sympathetic in their own way. Even Elise (Yan Ng), the social activist attempting to organize the girls into a union in order to defend their rights and fight the societal stigmatization and law enforcement harassment that they must endure, and who could easily be held up for ridicule because of her do-gooder naïveté, is treated with as much dignity and respect for her views as any of the other characters. In all, this is a remarkably mature and subtly observed work from a director who has made some of the most extreme and outré films in Hong Kong cinema, such as The Untold Story (a serial killer cooks his victims into pork buns) and Ebola Syndrome (self-explanatory). Be forewarned: viewers in search of cheap titillation will have to look elsewhere, as there isn’t a single sex scene in this film. But those who can get over their disappointment at the lack of naked flesh will find an intelligent and perceptive work. Even though the film’s aggressively materialist approach to its subject, as well as the lengthy speeches given by some of the characters, sometimes threatens to tip over into didacticism, Whispers and Moans nevertheless impresses with its bracing humanism and its freewheeling, Altmanesque style.