Maverick filmmaker Fruit Chan paints a grotesquely satirical picture of Hong Kong in “Three Husbands,” a heavily allegorical comedy-drama about a mentally challenged and virtually speechless prostitute who travels around the Special Administrative Region on a fishing boat and is relentlessly pimped out by her three “husbands.” Infused with Chan’s trademark absurdist humor and cheerful vulgarity, this fevered concoction is agreeably raunchy to start with but becomes a much more challenging and troubling proposition in a second half that’s light on laughter and heavy on extremely confronting sexual situations. Guaranteed to provoke discussion and even some outrage wherever it plays, “Three Husbands” is currently scheduled for domestic release in March 2019 following its world premiere in competition at Tokyo. Its explicit nature alone makes release in China out of the question.
Chan’s new film marks the final entry in his “Prostitute Trilogy,” following “Durian Durian” (2000) and “Hollywood Hong Kong” (2001). Like those films, “Three Husbands” comments on Hong Kong’s post-1997 cultural identity through the experiences of sex workers and other fringe dwellers.
Occupying center stage is Mui (Chinese actress Chloe Maayan, aka Meihuizi Zeng), a voluptuous and completely uninhibited young woman who spends much of the film in various states of undress and initially seems to be the happiest of hookers. Armed with an insatiable libido and a willing spirit, Mui spends her days satisfying long queues of laborers in Hong Kong’s waterfront districts. “We can’t afford housing but we can buy boobs,” says one.
Transporting Mui around Hong Kong harbor and raking in the cash are two old geezers whose avarice is rivaled only by their amorality. Big Brother (Mak Keung) seems to be Mui’s father and is also possibly the father of her infant child. Second Brother (Chan Man-lei), a chronic gambler with one arm, is apparently her “official” husband. In typical Chan fashion, the narrative can be unreliable at times. It later seems that both men could be Mui’s husbands and/or fathers, though it hardly matters in the overall scheme of things.
Among Mui’s most fervent admirers is Four Eyes (Peter Chan Charm-man), a goofy construction worker. After engaging in some amusing Russ Meyer-esque couplings with Mui, Four Eyes gets his wish and becomes husband No. 3.
Following a short stay on land with Four Eyes and his amusingly foul-mouthed, money-obsessed grandma (Ruby Cheung Suet-fun), Mui is taken back to the waters. Far from wanting to settle down with his wife, Four Eyes is eager to join Big Brother and Second Brother at sea, where rent’s cheap and Mui’s earning capacity is greater.
Mui’s second spell on the floating brothel propels the story in much darker and disturbing directions. Her once-sunny disposition turns to tired resignation as she’s sold to dozens and dozens of customers, again and again. In some of the most unerotic sex scenes imaginable, Mui is penetrated by a live eel (which is later cooked and eaten), and by what’s left of Second Brother’s amputated arm. Attempts to remedy her deteriorating mental state are similarly off-putting. At various times, Mui is hog-tied, bundled into a fishing net, and doused with ice-cold water.
As these violations and indignities mount up, it is possible — and perhaps even necessary in order to stomach them — to view Mui’s body as Hong Kong itself: a place that’s been leased, colonized, invaded, occupied, and traded without having much say. Adding weight to such an interpretation is the suggestion that Mui may in fact be a mermaid whose lineage goes back to the Lu Ting, a mythical race of half-human, half-fish creatures said to be the ancestors of Hong Kong’s indigenous people.
While plot threads such as this will intrigue homegrown audiences and outsiders familiar with Hong Kong history, “Three Husbands” is certain to turn many viewers off with its steady accumulation of gross-out scenes. Perhaps even more damaging in terms of audience engagement is the refusal to give Mui a voice. Apart from a few mumbled words here and there, she hardly speaks.
Though primarily concerned with pushing things to the limit, the screenplay by Chan and Lam Kee-to (“Hollywood Hong Kong”) is not without moments of poignancy and poetry. A subplot involving Four Eyes and bar hostess Sau Ming (Larine Tang) puts a realistic human face to the financial and emotional relationship between Hong Kong and China. In the film’s closing sequences, color slowly drains from the frame, and beautifully composed monochrome images appear like postcards of a bygone era. The uncertain road toward 2047 comes sharply into focus with a small but significant splash of color in the final scene filmed near the new mega-bridge connecting Hong Kong with China.
Energetically performed and snappily edited by Tin Sub-fat, “Three Husbands” looks good on a modest budget and employs a couple of Franz Liszt pieces to strong effect.