Having recently watched Michael Glawogger's documentary Whores' Glory, spotlighting the casual attitude toward prostitution in Shanghai, Girl$ plays out like a soap opera written with preconcieved notions pushing for high melodrama. During the opening credits, before the audience has even been introduced to the characters, director / writer Kenneth Bi shows us a nutty worst-case scenario: a man seen only in silhouette handcuffs his Paid Date, kills her, hacks the body to bits with a hand saw, and distributes the pieces in dumpsters and alleys all over the city. Being murdered is undoubtedly a concern for women in the sex industry (or the Paid Date industry, as the characters insist they aren't sex workers), but what should be horrifying feels like an unwarranted 0-to-90 escalation, as if a reel of a slasher movie was accidentally spliced in.
Underneath the threat of painful death and gruesome dismemberment, Bi trots out a number of plots that would be more at home in a daytime soap opera. Icy accidentally destroys her boyfriend's gaming computer, and a new one proves to be expensive, so she comes out of retirement to take a Date that a) could be the murderer and b) her boyfriend could find out about. Lin tries desperately to get her client to return her feelings for him, including friending him on "facelook" after seeing a picture of him and his girlfriend together. Bonnie is finally convinced to go on a Paid Date, but feels strangely self-conscious about it afterward, so she leaves money for the client instead of taking his. The one nicely understated thread is Gucci's, who is reluctant to give up her virginity to just any client. A scene where one prospect turns out to be her brother is funnier and more lighthearted than the rest of the movie would lead one to expect.
Directorially, Bi pushes clunky visual metaphors. During a montage of the girls having a great time together, they accidentally knock over a balloon vendor. Later, on a more dramatic day, Bi shows us a single red balloon flying off into the sky when a character learns something crucial. When the girls reach a crucial crossroads, Bi literally has them stand on a street corner with two sidewalks and two crosswalks, and they turn around and walk in opposite directions. His better techniques are far more subtle, including split-screens to show the way the girls communicate with prospective clients online, and the occasional use of text and other characters on screen as simple exposition. Most of the film is shot in a pretty basic handheld style, designed to accentuate the "reality" of the movie.
Girls never really figures out what it wants to say about these women or the line of work they're in. Seemingly key elements (like a robbery) are set up and then dropped without explanation. Some of Bi's plot points are a bit muddled (one expects that a missing Paid Date is the murdered girl in the opening, but they turn out to be two different characters). The film takes a few more twists and turns before finding an even more melodramatic way to tie the film together (although he skips at least Mega-Dramatic Opportunity), and the message he arrives at doesn't amount to much more than "people are resilient." Girl$ isn't a terrible film, but it has nothing new to say or show about one of the world's oldest professions.
The Video and Audio
Sound is a decent if unremarkable Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. Aside from one interesting moment where a girl's moans turn into a blur of sound, there's not a whole lot going on in the movie aside from dialogue and the occasional song / music cue. That dialogue sounds crisp, music does a good job of enveloping the viewer, and lots and lots of white-noise ambience sets the tone pretty clearly. English subtitles are also provided.
A trailer for The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake plays before the main menu. Additional trailers for The Treasure Hunter, The Legend is Born: Ip Man, City Under Siege, Confucius, Mushi-Shi, Goemon, RoboGeisha, and Hong Kong Connection are available under "Previews" in the special features (the auto-play trailer is not included here). No trailer for Girl$ has been included.