Fish (Think)Tanks at the Cinema

4 Feb

Pleasure Seekers in Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Pleasure Factory

When Pleasure Factory was shown in theatres back in 2007, it was touted by the media as a “docudrama” that will have audiences looking deeper into the ‘underworld’ of Singapore’s red-light district. In a country that has guarded its secrecy like a mother would with her newborn, sex being fleshed out in the theatres was sure to make a few bang for bucks (excuse the poor pun).

Pleasure Factory in short is a piece of social drama shot in an almost ‘documentary’ and lyrical mode – like a miscegenation of Poetic Realism Cinema and of French New Wave Cinema. Its plot is an interweaving series of three concurrent stories. A young cadet loses his virginity but also gains an emotional depth in one night. A teenage girl is initiated into the industry. And a jaded prostitute pays a charming busker for a performance he never really gets to finish.

Yet, while the film is largely centred within the Geylang red-light district, the film’s focus is not necessarily that of the pleasure-seekers in Geylang. Rather, take a closer look and you might find that the camera is really pointing at you. Like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, glimpse of self-reflexive commentaries can be found in Uekrongtham’s film.

Almost immediately when we think about sex and/or the flesh trade, our thoughts come tagged with voyeurism. I think it’s pretty hard to deny that our carnal urges are largely motivated by what we see (or sometimes with ‘teases’ what we can almost see). If you’ve been reading your healthy dose of Laura Mulvey, you’d probably know where this is going.

We are voyeurs. Us peeping toms at the cinema are no exception to the rule.

In one of the earliest sequence, the teenage girl (Isabella Chen) is introduced through a shot behind an aquarium [above]. You don’t really have to think that hard to know what Uekrongtham is trying to achieve in this shot: A play on the sex industry’s ‘fish-tank’. Women are housed in faux aquariums to have the prospective customers gaze at them before deciding which ‘fish’ he wants. And guess who’s looking at the girl through the tank now?

If our good friend Sigmund Freud is to be taken seriously, then we had better believe that there’s a sexual element to just looking alone. Freud’s scopophilia suggests that there’s a kind of sexual enpowerment for the looker objectifying the looked-at. In that shot alone, we’ve objectified the character, trying to penetrate her thoughts and her world.

Some critics have claimed that Pleasure Factory provides “too little depth” with its characters, resulting in a “sense of superficiality” about the film (Uhde and Ng Uhde 153). But I’d like to think that Uekrongtham (having been trained foremostly as a theatrical director) employs an element of Brechtian Theatre – that is, distanciation. We have been denied emotional penetration with the characters, more so because the film maintains that it cannot or will not reveal the pains of the ‘underworld.’ After all, the camera is merely a voyeur. And we are but tourists to the truth. Therefore, the film cannot provide an accurate look nor neither should it pretend to be able to do so.

Of course, this film is a glimpse into the consumer world of the flesh trade. It shows us that bodies are commodified and pleasure can be manufactured – hence the less than subtle title of Pleasure Factory. Bodies are constantly being line-up to be feasted on by prying eyes, what precipitates for most part is the urge to consume what is in view.

But Pleasure Factory is also a window into our own world. So in a way, we are perpetrators too – us and our voyeuristic gaze in the cinema. After all, what is constantly uttered in the film is “Take a look at our girls” before the camera directs our gaze to exposed bodies. Consumption of images becomes the mantra of the contemporary world we find ourselves living in. (a nod of approval from Baudrillard)

Pleasure Factory‘s social commentaries on the sex industry goes further.

One of the best edits in the film, the two shots above introduce a graphic match between them: three ‘bodies’ lined up alongside one another. In this sequence, the parallels are drawn up between the three bodies and that of the three deities. A literal reading would probably suggests that the prostitutes are ‘worshipped’ in the flesh.

While pleasure-seekers aren’t exactly singing hymns in the bedroom, religion and sex do share some point(s) of convergence. There is almost an existential element shared between the two. But while some people may be calling hits on my head now or calling me a blasphemer, but consider the role both play in the complex world we live in. They both offer some point of entry (ok, bad pun) and some form of respite.

You have sacred rituals and we have had mating rituals. You’ve got your sacred text and some of us have bought our copy of the kama-sutra. I think some of us might even defend that sex has an element of ‘transcendance’ about it too – think Da Vinci Code and its take on paganism. This isn’t a call to go “oh god” when one is banging the night way. Far from it. But as early as we’ve discovered gods, we’ve also discovered most of our bodily functions. And I’m not saying that sex is the new religion either. I’m no hippie. But I do think that Uekrongtham is pushing audiences to deconstruct for themselves the line between the sacred and the profane, between religion and sex.

Returning to our fish-tank, there’s even a sequence in the film when the young cadet (Loo Zihan) speaks nervously to the sex worker about the fishes painted on the walls of their motel room. There the sex worker (Xu Er) explains that her favourite fish is the clownfish: They have “short lives” but are “beautiful.” A wonderful reflection of the lives of these workers who have a short window of opportunity to make the most out of everything.

Aquariums and fish-tanks continue to feature prominently in Pleasure Factory.

In fact, one of the most poignant editing in the film (a dissolve and a graphic match) involves a fish-tank/aquarium.

In this shot [above] the rectangular aquarium is matched graphically with the high-rise apartment buildings that are almost synonymous with life in the city. The graphic continuity here is, for me, the most powerful point in the entire film.

Quite simply, life in a fish-tank is equated to a city-life. It is an environment where pleasure is in the objectifying gaze, an environment where the sense of surveillance is perennial and where one is always unable to break the glass that separates the gazer/gazed dichotomy and to truly connect with one another. In short, reality in the city has become a spectator sport (think: reality television).

Necessarily, the cinema becomes a sanctioned asylum for our voyeuristic tendencies – a different sort of ‘pleasure factory’. Yet, one is deemed illegal and the other isn’t. Both are talked about passionately if people would listen – they both continue to fascinate and find their way into after-dinner conversations.

Next time you’re in the cinema, remind your neighbours and friend(s) that we are all perverts – one way or another.

Oh next time you watch your porno flick, you’re twice the pervert! hah.

Works Cited

Uhde, Jan and Yvonne Ng Uhde. Latent Images: Film in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2010.

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