Sex workers and their clients in three locations — Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico — are observed closely and with nonjudgmental detachment in “Whores’ Glory.” Helmer Michael Glawogger ultimately doesn’t have anything new to say about prostitution, but the degree of access is certainly impressive, as is the lapidary lensing, which compels consistently without prettifying the seedy milieu. A standout soundtrack of music by the likes of P.J. Harvey and CocoRosie adds edge. Pic is sure to turn a few tricks with niche distribs after working the festival streets and will pick up further clients on ancillary.
With a subtitle that announces the film is a “triptych,” which plays up the spiritual subtext that arises naturally from the interviewees’ own discussion of religion, the pic is divided neatly into three parts, each one focusing on a specific locale.
In the first part, set in and around the Fish Tank brothel in Bangkok, the women stop by a Buddhist shrine to pray for a remunerative day before punching a clock, underscoring the impression that this is essentially a sex factory — the ultimate sweatshop. After getting gussied up like models about to hit the runaway, the women take their places in a brightly lit glass box from which clients can choose them. After hours, some of the prostitutes are seen being entertained themselves with “bar boys” whom they pay for company, while others discuss the cost of qualifying to perform massage, another skill that might supplement sex work when they get older.
The matter-of-fact attitude toward prostitution in Thailand, where it seems to be considered just another consumer service, contrasts with the more angst-filled attitudes in the other two locations profiled. In the “City of Joy” red-light district of Faridpur, the sex workers and the clients believe that if they didn’t do this shameful work, men would take to raping women on the streets.
Although most of the working girls curse like marines, one explains she won’t perform oral sex because that’s the same mouth she uses to pray to Allah. Local religious sensibilities don’t seem to have any problem with very young girls being sold by their families into the trade, and amazingly, Glawogger manages to gain permission to record one madam haggling over the price for a girl who looks barely past puberty.
Life is equally cheap in Reynosa, Mexico, a town near the U.S. border where the prostitutes are fenced into a special area called La Zona. The region’s already quasi-paganistic form of Catholicism has given rise to a cult around Lady Death, a deity to whom several of the women pray for an easy exit when the time comes — probably sooner rather than later, as several of those seen are addicted to crack.
It’s in this last section that Glawogger is allowed to film a prostitute servicing a client in full, hardcore detail, in a sequence that looks a little staged judging by the multiple camera angles used. Although the scene takes “Whores’ Glory” to a logical conclusion of sorts, some auds may feel it cheapens the film. It might have been more audacious and subversive, in a way, to let an earlier scene of two dogs having sex stand as the only act of intercourse seen in the whole film.
Wolfgang Thaler is credited with not just lensing but also lighting, which suggests scenes were not filmed under the purest of verite conditions, but the result looks terrific. Editing by Monika Willi is just as instrumental to the visceral pic’s impact as the visuals and musical soundscape, which is supplemented with original material by Pappik & Regener.