Although set in a different milieu entirely, writer-helmer Zou Peng’s intriguing sophomore outing “Sauna on Moon” bears striking plot similarities with another Cannes 2011 entry, Bertrand Bonello’s “House of Tolerance.” Like Bonello’s likewise languid and ensemble-centered tale, this is a story of a brothel run by an ex-pro turned madam who, along with a pimp-manager, sees her bordello’s fortunes change over several years. Never quite as steamy as its premise would suggest, “Sauna” features good perfs and memorable moments but is hard to follow, and will be largely fest-bound.
Set some time in the 2000s (reference is made to the Change’e 1 lunar spacecraft of 2007), the action spans several years as pimp Wu (Wu Yuchi) tries to build up biz at the sauna-cum-brothel in Macau he runs with Lee (Yang Xiaomin) on behalf of its gangster owner, Lin. The working girls are the usual filmic mix of naifs, including aspiring Szechuan singer Zhan (Zhan Yi) among the harder-hearted femmes. One subplot shows how Wu’s henchman Lei (Lei Ting) lures a virgin factory worker into Lin’s web so he can satisfy his hunger for a virgin, but Lei is sidelined when he demands reimbursement for his expenses. Years pass, and Hou and Lin’s story resolves itself in an unpredictable way.
Fragmentary at the best of times, the pic is most memorable for the stylized, striking work of lenser Nelson Yu Lik-wai, who has collaborated several times with Jia Zhangke, and himself helmed “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Standout moments here include a scene of the girls catwalking for clients at a pool party when the brothel becomes more successful, and a long take of them sashaying up a stairwell.
It’s not always easy to piece together what’s going on, but there’s a palpable sense that larger forces, like the handover of Macau to the Chinese in 1999, are shaping ordinary folks’ lives. Narrative is very much of a piece with the elliptical indie style of helmers like Jia, but without the same impact and clarity of focus. Nevertheless, lead thesps Wu and Yang work hard to give their characters shading.
For the record, the pic’s original title, “Chang’e,” is not just the same as that of the aforementioned spaceship, but also the name of the mythical goddess of the moon, and consequently the name of the brothel around which the action takes place.